A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip

Alexander Masters

Unique, transgressive and as funny as its subject, A Life Discarded has all the suspense of a murder mystery. Written with his characteristic warmth, respect and humour, Masters asks you to join him in celebrating an unknown and important life left on the scrap heap.

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.

A Life Discarded is a true, shocking, poignant, often hilarious story of an ordinary life. The author of the diaries, known only as ‘I’, is the tragicomic patron saint of everyone who feels their life should have been more successful. Part thrilling detective story, part love story, part social history, A Life Discarded is also an account of two writers’ obsessions: of ‘I’s need to record every second of life and of Masters’ pursuit of this mysterious yet universal diarist.

Reviews of A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip

    • ‘A bizarre, engrossing, affectionate book that is a triumph on every level.’ The Times
    • ‘Profoundly moving.’ Daily Mail
    • ‘If Masters investigations feel like a Paul Auster detective story, there are also traces of Alan Bennet bad Barbary Pym seeping through the Cambridge hedges … It’s not life affirming – Masters isn’t slick or pompous enough for that – but life-probing, pushing at the boundaries of empathy and understanding.’ The Sunday Times
    • ‘Masters is a beautiful writer: funny, inquisitive and attentive.’ Observer
    • ‘Intriguingly original … A ripping yarn from start to finish and as impressively chaotic and hugely enjoyable a dip into a skip as one could ever hope for.’ Express
    • ‘Playful, unsettling and altogether compelling … pin-sharp and generously open to eccentricity … He has produced an ingenious new twist on the concept of a ghostwritten biography, in which the ghost turns out to be the kind of person who usually disappears between the cracks of society without leaving a trace behind. In A Life Discarded she is brilliantly fleshed out and brought back to life.’ The Spectator
    • ‘Masters has written a book that engenders in the reader the inexhaustible sympathy for the sorrow, and the solace, of the unconventional life.’ Telegraph
    • ‘Masters wonderfully exposes all the questions about identity, in writing or in the flesh, that this enormous, rambling, sad diary raises … Masters tells his tale with such verve ‘ Mary Beard, Guardian
    • ‘Masters’ interest is firmly in obscure and unseen lives. That’s not all that sets his books apart: they have a postmodern playfulness, the writing process described in the narrative and their subjects reading and commenting (not always favourably) on the work-in-progress, while doodles, photos and knowing, Tristram Shandy-style jokes dot the text … A fascinating and surprisingly funny book’ FT
    • ‘Fascinating and funny’ FT
    • ‘Charming, mercurial and joyous …[a] masterclass in narrative investigation’ Sunday Times, Books of the Year