A cache of 148 journals found in a dumpster leads to a multilayered mystery and an inspiring biography.
‘A Life Discarded’
by Alexander Masters
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 258 pp., $26
Imagine this: Two dear friends find 148 journals in a dumpster and bring them to you, suggesting that you would be the perfect person to dive in and discover what they are all about and (most important) who wrote them.
This is what happened to British biographer Alexander Masters (“Stuart: A Life Backwards“) back in 2001, and after many years of hesitation, he finally chose a random volume and opened it. Luckily for us, “A Life Discarded” turns out to be a multilayered mystery and an inspiring biography of a person who, if not for Masters, might have been lost to time.
The handwritten journals, which varied in size and color, were contained in three worn boxes, with no return address. The first words that Masters read were “Hope my diaries aren’t blown up before people can read them — they have immortal value.”
In a world of increasing technology and dwindling human interaction, it’s refreshing to follow Masters as he puts together the pieces of the diarist’s life. The biography is full of writing excerpts and drawings from the journals, my favorite being a list of the diarist’s birthdays from ages 13-62, describing the celebrations, gifts and emotions.
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We follow Masters as he consults with handwriting experts and private investigators, burrows deep inside Cambridge libraries and conducts a Hardy Boys-like search for what could be the diarist’s former home.
As you may have noticed, I’m being very careful to not give away major revelations in the story (foremost, the name and sex of the author). The joy in reading “A Life Discarded” lies in the uncovering of this anonymous person’s life.
Masters has created a unique and special work that will appeal to amateur detectives, Anglophiles and lovers of humanity everywhere. Definitely worth a read.