The best memoirs that read like novels

Who am I?

I became interested in the genre of memoir during the lockdown when I found myself reflecting on my past during the extended solitary periods. Looking through a shoebox of old letters put me in touch with the person I had once been. I then discovered that the act of writing down memories opened up areas that I had forgotten about or that had faded almost to nothing, and suddenly they became quite vivid. I decided to create memoirist.org for writing at a more literary level and only publish highly polished pieces. Memoirist now has many followers and some posts have nearly a thousand views. 


I wrote...

A Young Lady's Miscellany

By Auriel Roe,

Book cover of A Young Lady's Miscellany

What is my book about?

When a young teenager is left to her own devices following the disintegration of the family home, things quickly spiral into dysfunction. Neither parent is inclined to help the heroine negotiate the potholes toward becoming a responsible adult so she flounders again and again, often with humorous effect. It is her Cumbrian grandmother, whose door is always open, who becomes the parental figure she comes to rely on.

"A magical transformation of memory's rags and patches into a coherent story: a wonderful account, perhaps the best I've read, of a female coming into her own." Tony Connor, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature 

The books I picked & why

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Muzungu: A Rhodesian Testament

By Rod Madocks,

Book cover of Muzungu: A Rhodesian Testament

Why this book?

I found this new memoir riveting partly because it was so different from my own life experiences. My favourite sections were about the author's childhood in Northern Rhodesia [which became Zambia on independence]. Rod Madocks's childhood years seemed to structure his life for better and worse: leaving Zambia at the age of thirteen to be sent to boarding school in England has an increasingly negative effect for years to come but there are some humorous aspects. I was also deeply drawn to the portraits of the author’s parents as elderly people which was poignant after I as the reader had got to know them so well in the descriptions of his childhood. Rod Madocks is a wordsmith supreme—I hope this book becomes a classic.


In Search of the Blue Duck

By James Bloom,

Book cover of In Search of the Blue Duck

Why this book?

After graduating, the narrator's family set him up with a job on Wall Street but it just isn't for him despite his upbringing preparing him for this kind of route. A few months later, he sets off on a round-the-world trip. The book features the first eighteen months of this journey spent in Australasia scraping a living in any way he can with occasionally outlandish casual jobs including beekeeping, running a youth hostel, and working on a production line in a cardboard box factory. He comes across a young woman, another traveller, sleeping beneath a table of honey pots and they begin a passionate yet fraught love affair.

Not only is this a great story, it is also punctuated with Bloom's vivid descriptions of landscapes and people he encounters along the way. There are meditations on the quirky details of life and reminiscing on an unusual childhood.


Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived

By Penelope Lively,

Book cover of Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived

Why this book?

I've chosen this one not only because it's about growing up in Cairo, where I spent five years of my adult life as a teacher in an international school, but also for its astute analysis of how and why the memories we form in childhood differ fundamentally from those we acquire as adults. Another reason for its inclusion on my list is that it belongs to two childhood memoir subgenres for which I have a particular penchant, those by authors raised by people who were neither their biological nor adoptive parents and those by under-appreciated women novelists.


Boy and Going Solo: Tales of Childhood

By Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake (illustrator),

Book cover of Boy and Going Solo: Tales of Childhood

Why this book?

Like so many people of my generation, I have the writing of Roald Dahl in my blood. I learned to read with his children’s classics then, as an older child, watched his disturbing yet rivetingly spooky Tales of the Unexpected on television. The stories from his life in these two volumes are often more incredible than his fiction, and certainly equally outlandish. The people he encountered can certainly be traced to the characters he created in his career as an author. This is one of the few books I can re-read. 


Misadventures

By Sylvia Smith,

Book cover of Misadventures

Why this book?

A memoir that deals with the everyday life of an office worker in 1950s/60s London seems like a joke and, indeed, when it came out, it was treated as such but there is some kind of poetry in this exploration of the humdrum. The manuscript was discovered in the slush pile by a rare editor who grasped the humour of what would appear to be an empty life but a life that Smith is content with. She lived with her parents until her twenties then moved into various lodgings, descriptions, and inhabitants of which are examined in detail. Smith had many short-term boyfriends, usually meeting them at a 'social club'.

Chapters are minimalistic and quirky but I wondered if some could be expanded and if she had missed some opportunities. Not a lot happens as Smith moves through life as a secretary making her observations, some grotesque, some unusual, some so humdrum they seem bizarre. I was reminded of Dot Cotton. Smith rarely delves into her psyche and what we have at the most is subtext, rather like Pinter or a Kitchen Sink drama. 


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