Page-turner pieces a life back together
Fiction: A Life Discarded, Alexander Masters, 4th Estate, pbk, 254 pages, €18.95
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
There are 148 diaries found in a skip. All by the one (unknown) person and turfed out of an old house in Cambridge. Found by two academics, lying among broken bricks and other tat, (the diaries, not the academics). 50 years of someone's life, all their secrets, their day-to-day complaints, their dreams and random musings, starting in the early 1950s and ending just a few weeks before the diaries were found (in 2001).
So begins A Life Discarded, a five-year odyssey by Alexander Masters that's part biography, part detective novel, part study of the human condition. At first, it's not something he exactly throws himself into. The diaries remain in a bunch of mouldy, battered boxes, get shunted around in various house moves, used to prop up a wonky chair or stuffed under a piano, occasionally dipped into but mostly ignored. It isn't until one of the boxes splits open, spilling its contents all over the floor, almost demanding to be read, that Masters really gets down to it.
In a not overly convincing few pages, hooked on a particularly graphic passage in one of the diaries, Masters admits the first of his many assumptions about the writer is wrong. From the start he's figured them for a man, perhaps some old toff professor from one of the universities. In fact, the writer is a woman. Well, I never! There are a few of these 'revelations' over the course of the book, all framed in the same way, "I'd been wrong all along! X wasn't X at all, it was Y!" While some of them serve their purpose in the overall narrative, others merely grate and feel somewhat dishonest, plot devices rather than actual discoveries.
The book is full of twists and turns of the author's own making. As he's determined to keep the diarist's identity secret for as long as possible. He goes out of his way to not find out who she is while at the same time endeavouring to find out everything about her. He finds the house she grew up in, now just a pile of rubble, hidden amongst trees and brambles, he does some research at the town library where our diarist used to work, but turns up very little. He speaks to a private detective and does the complete opposite of what he recommends. He takes some of the diaries to a graphologist to have the handwriting analysed. That mostly yields a load of old cods-wallop about the shape of her 'ts' indicating stubbornness and other such completely unprovable and useless flights of fancy. It also yields her date of birth, not from analysing her handwriting but from the graphologist Barbara reading the text more thoroughly than a rightly embarrassed Masters.
Armed with this seemingly valuable info, Masters decides once again not to use it. That would be much too straight forward. Instead, it's back to the pages of the diaries, dipping in and out, finding out about her school life (fairly miserable), her early work experiences (they don't go so well either), her romantic longings (same) and how her life turns out not at all how she expected it to. There's plenty more mundane stuff, too. What she bought at the shops, how much it cost. What she's been watching on television. We eventually learn her name.
Masters does a good job spinning out a mystery where really there isn't one, or at least not quite the kind of one he portrays. It's a page-turner but not exactly compelling, you always feel he'll get there in the end. After all, he's not trying to crack the Enigma code or anything, he has all the information he needs, it just takes him a while to stitch it all together.
It's worth it though, for in the end all his faffing around and diversions are the real story.