A Life Discarded is a biographical detective story. In 2001, 148 tattered and mould-covered notebooks were discovered lying among broken bricks in a skip on a building site in Cambridge. Tens of thousands of pages were filled to the edges with urgent handwriting. They were a small part of an intimate, anonymous diary, starting in 1952 and ending half a century later, a few weeks before the books were thrown out. Over five years, the award-winning biographer Alexander Masters uncovers the identity and real history of their author, with an astounding final revelation.
Rating: 3 stars
In 2001, 148 diaries were discovered in a skip in Cambridge. Our dear writer, Alexander Masters was gifted those diaries eventually by his two professor friends. Masters had the required credentials of a biographer having written two very noteworthy biographies already. Over the next 14 years, Masters goes through all the diaries, not necessarily in a sequential manner, elucidates facts from these diaries and then, spins this exquisite and thrilling tale. This is his take on how he discovered the diaries and then the subsequent investigation to find out the writer of the diaries. Masters reads these diaries in an arbitrary manner and hence, it feels like much of a mystery than it would have otherwise. One can clearly see how he becomes obsessed with the entire story as he progresses and goes on to make assumptions as he uncovers each and every detail of “I’s” life. Of course, with time, his assumptions get challenged and refuted; invariably helping the reader gain some more insight about the character in question.
The book switches seamlessly between Masters’ quest and also his own personal tragedy of dealing with a friend’s cancer. He manages to strike a good yet sad balancing act – the contrast is stark and agonizingly moving. What didn’t quite work for me though is the fact that Masters seems to be concerned only with his own curiosity about the writer of those diaries rather than the sentiment around it. He is almost at a point of obsessing with the writer of the diaries and imagines way more than the diaries portray. Masters almost relives the dreams, failures, hopes, traumas of the writer and then feels the pain when he gets to know of the resignation to a depressingly mediocre life.
This is a fairly compelling and pacy thriller and we are almost embroiled in the plot with Masters to a great extent. We as readers, tend to expect something highly tragic or shocking to be the end of it all but forget to understand one very basic thing – that every life is as important as the other and this is the story of one such person.