Books of the Year: Biography and Memoir

There's nothing stodgy about the unconventional approach taken to this year's crop of profiles

Last month, the judges of the Costa Book Awards announced a shortlist for the biography prize with only three, rather than the usual four titles, raising questions about whether the genre had lost its verve. Perhaps the plodding recounting of a person's life has become staid, but a review of this year's biographies shows much experiment with the traditional form, and some lively results.

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (Vintage, £16.99) by Sarah Bakewell is one such book and it rightly deserves its place on the Costa shortlist. It blurs lines between philosophy, biography and even self-help on occasions, something Montaigne (right) may well have approved of. Bakewell is present as a witty interlocutor between 16th-century France and the modern day. It is part humane portrait of Montaigne - his idle attitude to the management of the family estate, his love of women, and the significance of the untimely death of a dear friend from the plague - and part gentle guide to philosophy. Most importantly, it is written so that the reader cannot escape the very questions Montaigne poses, the biggest of which is in the title.

A different radical approach comes in another book about a philosopher. Bettany Hughes's The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Cape £25) was a challenge to write, she admits, as it is a "doughnut" subject: the barefoot philosopher is only known through the writings of others, resulting in a profusion of material around her subject and a big hole in the middle. So Hughes recreates the dusty streets of Greece in which his dialogues took shape, and revisits archaeological sites around the glittering city of Athens. It reads like an investigation and, in trying to find the man, Hughes uses the skills of historian and documentarian combined to create a fresh and surprisingly pacy biography.

Looking inward, there have been a number of memoirs about family this year. Rupert Thomson's This Party's Got to Stop (Granta, £16.99), the story of the extended, wild and morbid home that he and his brothers make in their dead father's house, stands out for the unusualness of the story.

On a similar theme - absent parents - are Michael Frayn's My Father's Fortune: A Life (Faber, £16.99) and Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road (Picador, £16.99). Born out of wedlock to a Scottish woman and a Nigerian man who had studied at Aberdeen University in the 1960s, Kay was given up for adoption; Red Dust Road describes her journey to find her birth parents. Her father meets her in a hotel in Abuja, sermonises feverishly for hours, and tries to cleanse Jackie of the sin of her existence as an illegitimate child. To boot, he is too ashamed of his earlier life to introduce her to his second family. Kay finds some weary humour in her disappointment of a father, but her journey to her mother is heart-rending. The woman has wilted into a nervous fragile creature, and when they finally meet, after many cancelled appointments, rattles on about a neighbour with a heart condition. The book goes further than a search for roots. It is a meditation on what it is to have a history, how that history shapes a person, and at what point they stand alone from it.

My Father's Fortune is uncharacteristic of Frayn. Unlike his usual, very careful prose, this book has a looseness about it. It is a gathering together of his family myth, told through relatives' recollections, his own impressionistic childhood memories and those of his reflective adult self. At the heart of the book is Frayn's father, Tom, born into poverty in 1901 and crammed into two rooms off the shabby Holloway Road in north London with his parents and three siblings. At a tender age, Tom acquires a swagger, a decent job, a Homberg hat and a wife a station above him in life, and moves them all out to the suburbs, where Frayn's life begins. From this promising start, the story turns dark when Tom's beloved wife, Vi, drops dead suddenly after a glass of sherry. The book is Frayn's tribute to his father, a posthumous message of love that Michael had not expressed when Tom was alive, and a brilliant piece of writing.

Also of note is a work on Stieg Larsson by his friend Kurdo Baksi. Slim by comparison with Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, Stieg Larsson: My Friend (MacLehose, £14.99) nevertheless goes back to the roots of their friendship. Editors of separate Swedish magazines which eventually merged, the two men were professional colleagues as well as friends, and Baksi writes knowledgably about Larsson's work as a passionate campaigner against racism. It is an intellectual, unsentimental portrait.

There are some doorstoppers in this year's crop, too: David Brown's Palmerston: A Biography (Yale, £25), a hefty, statesman-like life of the 19th-century prime minister, and Rosamund Bartlett's academic but impressive Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Profile, £25).

Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (Cape, £25) edited by his widow Elizabeth and his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, doesn't skimp on pages either, but every drop of Chatwin is worth it. The same exquisite observations found in his novels and the penetrating ideas found in his essays infuse even his most casual letters. The volume also reveals much about his guarded personal life and his sudden passions, all augmented by humorously exasperated footnotes from his long-suffering wife.

With this level of quality, publishers and readers of biographies need not worry too much about the Costa's shortlist.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...