The best memoirs of lost childhood

The Books I Picked & Why

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

By Alexandra Fuller

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood

Why this book?

This book resonates strongly with me as it is partly set in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when I was there as a young, naive geologist. But it is much more than that. It is a child’s view of a dysfunctional family struggling amidst the chaos of civil war and the changes that independence brings. Yet, despite her mother’s alcoholism and the trials of getting by in a radically changing society, Fuller never loses a child’s perspective and the story is laced with beauty and humour—there are places for tears and belly laughs.


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Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

By Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir

Why this book?

Like Fuller’s book, Angela’s Ashes describes a harsh childhood in a lost world, in this case the slums of Limerick in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s. It is altogether a grimmer book, although leavened with wry Irish wit and vivid descriptions of the people and places. The book is beautifully written, but McCourt has been criticized for overdoing the misery and fictionalizing incidents, which raises the question of where to draw the line between fact and fiction in memoirs when you often only have imperfect memories to draw on. I was occasionally shocked when I managed to research an incident from my childhood in Lands of Lost Content only to discover that my fondly believed family story was wildly inaccurate.


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Cider with Rosie

By Laurie Lee

Cider with Rosie

Why this book?

In stark contrast to the gloom of depression-era Limerick, Cider with Rosie is a paean to the idyllic lost world of rural England at approximately the same time. Lee was a poet and his prose sings as he describes his family, “a sprawling, cumbersome, countrified brood” and the old people of the village, “…white-whiskered, gaitered, booted and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world.” Growing up in the west of Scotland, I knew nothing of Lee’s world and lived a young city life radically different from his, and yet his writing and imagery drew me so far in that I missed his world as if it had been my own. If I have given a moment of that feeling to readers of Lands of Lost Content then I have succeeded.


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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Why this book?

This was a difficult pick because it’s not an easy read and, like Angela’s Ashes, has been surrounded by controversy over some incidents. Nevertheless, it is an immensely powerful book based upon the real experiences of a child soldier. Beah has lost two childhoods. The first was 12 years of happy, RAP obsessed kid growing up in rural Sierra Leone. From this, he is ripped by his country’s civil war and forced, through intimidation, violence, and drugs to become a child soldier and commit horrendous acts. Eventually, he is rescued by UNICEF, rehabilitated, and regains his humanity. Several of my novels—Flames of the Tiger, Four Steps to Death—examine young people caught up in war, but a long way gone goes much farther in examining and explaining how children can be dreadfully manipulated and turned into unemotional killing machines.


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Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man: The Memoirs of George Sherston

By Siegfried Sassoon

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man: The Memoirs of George Sherston

Why this book?

As a corollary of my fascination with the cultural watershed of the First World War, I am drawn to the world that was destroyed in the mud of Flanders. From our removal in time, it is impossible to view that vanished world other than through the lens of the horrors that came after and destroyed it, making it difficult to access other than through history books. Some memoirs of the First World War (eg. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth), devote significant space to the pre-war days but very few look exclusively at that time. Sassoon’s book does, although he hides his memoir behind changed names (even the author is called George Sherston), and claims of novelization. Despite this, it is a clear picture of a certain class in England prior to 1914 presented as a lament for a lost age.


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