Memoir is a tricky genre to get right. A life transcribed does not have the conventions that people look for in a book such as plot, character development, resolution, etc. Most people’s lives are just a series of random events starring not particularly interesting characters and so they do not make for compelling reading. The recent trend for memoir was generally concerned with “misery memoirs”, i.e. those books written by people who have overcome huge tragedy/addiction/bad luck/abusive parents to go on to lead happy lives (e.g. Dave Pelzer‘s entire oeuvre, James Frey‘s A Million Little Pieces, Julie Gregory‘s Sickened). Apparently this trend is now over as publishers think that with the global economic downturn people want to read stories that take them away from the horror of daily life, rather than pounding them over the head with it.
Alan Bennett’s memoir of his childhood growing up in Leeds is certainly no misery memoir although his mother’s battles with depression are a large feature of the book. However Bennett deals with this with honesty and compassion, showing how his parents’ love for each other withstood even his mother’s descent into paranoia and hospitalisation. Bennett, a respected playwright and screenwriter, had originally given up on his family as a source of material as they were ordinary working class folk, but it comes to light during his mother’s illness that his maternal grandfather committed suicide and that perhaps depression runs in the family. Of course this is the kind of plot twist that a writer like Bennett longs for!
Bennett’s eye for detail is what makes this book such a pleasurable read. His descriptions of his aunts Kathleen and Myra and their way of lording it over his mother with their pretentions towards being glamorous single career girls are very funny. He also describes his Grandma Peel’s house in such vivid prose that it feels almost as if you are sitting in the smoky living room listening to the family as they have one of their “musical evenings” with piano, violin and song.
Bennett describes his family with such affection and humour that they come alive in the reader’s mind. A Life Like Other People’s is beautifully written and a poignant tribute.