Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

‘Mother says I look like a sick ostrich’

Alexander Masters transforms some anonymous diaries found discarded on a skip into a volume worthy of Laurence Sterne

Most modern biographers feed off celebrity like vampires let loose in a blood bank. That is why their books sell: they give readers the illusion of intimacy with people they will never know. Alexander Masters is different. He specialises in what one might call ‘marginal biography’, devoting hundreds of pages to individuals who live on the frayed edges of society, and often seem to be on the edge in other ways besides.

In Stuart: A Life Backwards, he wrote about a sharp-witted down-and-out whose life had been damaged beyond repair; with Simon: The Genius in My Basement, his focus switched to a dropout mathematician who spent his days eating tinned kippers in a basement stuffed with old maps and plastic bags. In both books, with a mixture of puzzled compassion and bumbling good humour, Masters revealed a talent for examining lives that barely registered as a blip on most people’s radar. Take the trouble to get to know someone, he suggested, and eventually you come to realise that even the unlikeliest of people can turn out to be heroes in disguise.

His latest subject is his most challenging yet. He doesn’t meet her until the final pages, and she remains a shadowy presence throughout, known to him only through thousands of her diary entries. The result is an attempt to write the life of someone for whom ‘life’ and ‘writing’ have become richly confused categories. It is playful, unsettling and altogether compelling.

The story begins in 2001, when two friends discover — here the book’s subtitle is something of a plot spoiler — a stash of 148 diaries in a Cambridge skip. They pass their find onto Masters, and he chooses one at random. Dated 1960, it is ‘an ordinary pocket notebook’ that has been ‘ambushed by a person’s desperation to record his or her life’.

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