Genealogical research is so often a journey into the unknown. An exploration of those who have gone before. For most it is a chance to find out where you have come from, to spot likenesses and differences. Who doesn’t hope to find an illustrious ancestor, a royal connection or even a little scandal? A hope so frequently thwarted by the discovery that ones forebears were as dull as oneself. It is mostly a private quest, occasionally shared with family but rarely given a wider audience.
This month however I want to highlight some of the myriad of titles coming out just now where writers choose a public forum for their family secrets (or as my gran might have said, wash their dirty linen in public) to great and very readable effect.
First up A Life Discarded is perhaps the most innovative and intriguing. Think of this as genealogy as performance art: Audrey Collins channelled by Marina Abramović. Alexander Masters is given a collection of 148 diaries found in a skip. A life chronicled over more than 50 years. The daily minutiae, hopes, fears, doubts and dreams, the trip to the shops. But not, of course, a name; diaries are a personal record, you have no need to tell yourself who you are. Masters’ challenge is to identify the writer. However Masters is no genealogist. He wilfully spurns such obvious tools as the census or even the simple logic afforded by putting the diaries into chronological order and carefully noting clues as revealed. No: he dips in and out, hares off after red herrings, draws pictures based expressions of self-doubt about hair styles or the shape of glasses’ frames and consults a graphologist. It is a maddening, frustrating but most of all eminently readable quest. And he comes to a very surprising conclusion. Continue reading »