Memoirs: There are rich pickings in accounts of drink, misery and madness

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There was a time when a memoir was a mark of achievement. Now it's a career move in itself. The days when everyone had a novel inside them seem to have been supplanted. Who needs art when you can ransack your childhood? Who needs characters when you've got mum and dad?

Jonathan Maitland started writing his memoir on the advice of a colleague. "If you can write it as well as you tell it," she told him, "it would make a great book". In How to Survive Your Mother (Simon & Schuster, £10.99, £9.99, free p&p from 0870 079 8897, 294pp) Maitland does indeed tell the tale of his mother as you imagine he might tell it in the pub: in short, often verbless sentences and a jaunty, chatty style that sounds, at times, like a DJ on local radio. It's clear, however, that he does have a great story to tell.

He starts with his mother's death when he was 12. One of her many deaths, in fact, because there was nothing she loved quite as much as a dramatic deathbed scene. She also loved money, make-up, plastic surgery and Dennis, the private detective she employed for her divorce. Her love for her children was rather less evident.

Alerted by a fellow journalist, who remembers the whiff of a scandal, Maitland sets out to uncover the truth of his mother's business dealings. He finds himself on a trail of trickery that ranges from extortion to attempted murder. His memoir reads a bit like a feature from the Daily Mail; beneath the perky surface, however, there's a sadder, richer tale to be told - of a woman's descent into amorality and her son's shame.

Mary Loudon's Relative Stranger (Canongate, £16.99/ £15.99, 384pp) is in much the same mould: an investigative journey into the secrets of a life. "On the 27th of January 2001," it begins, "while I was skiing fast down a mountain in France, my sister, Catherine, was dying slowly in England: in a hospital I didn't know she had been admitted to, from a cancer I didn't know she had, under an identity I had no idea existed." Yes, it's dramatic stuff and certainly the raw material for a fascinating book. Sadly, this isn't it.

For the last 11 years of her life, Catherine Loudon, who had schizophrenia, refused to see her family. News of her death came as "a giant fist" punching through "a wall made of tissue paper". Curled up on her cream sofa, "tears streaming down" her face, Mary muses that "a woman who reaches her potential may yet be one of the most broken examples of humanity that we... know how to describe". More importantly, she decides to write a book.

So the great project begins. Nurses, doctors, social workers, priests, nuns and café staff are all dragooned into the quest to find out more about the sister she barely knew, who called herself "Stevie" and preferred to be treated as a man. Conversations are described and padded out with observations on schizophrenia, identity and suffering. "People die unfulfilled," she muses, in an echo of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts", "and glaciers melt but birthday parties are still thrown."

The prose is clogged and mannered, veering wildly between The Selected Pensées of Mary Loudon and statements that tend towards Hallmark-level banality. "I loved him for being so much a man," she writes, when her husband obeys her request to accompany her into her sister's sitting room. There are some moving moments, but they are all in extracts from her father's diary. His dignified lack of self-pity is a powerful foil to his younger daughter's solipsism and histrionics.

It's a huge relief to move to the real McCoy: to John Burnside's account of his relationship with his violent, alcoholic father; to Hugo Hamilton's memories of adolescence in an Irish-German Dublin household, and to Brian Thompson's vivid portrait of a wartime childhood with a mad mother and a raffish, absent father.

Burnside is an award-winning poet and novelist; Hamilton a novelist and writer of short stories, and Thompson a biographer and playwright. Perhaps it's no coincidence that they have all waited quite some time (in Thompson's case, nearly 70 years) to tackle the traumas of their own childhood. Perhaps it sometimes takes that long.

"This work is best treated as a work of fiction," says John Burnside of A Lie About My Father (Cape, £12.99/£11.99, 324pp), a book that begins with epigraphs from St Augustine and Edgar Allan Poe. The Augustine quotation is about free will; the Poe about peering into the abyss. Both are horribly relevant to a childhood dominated by a father who is a pathological liar and a drunkard, who spins tales of future prosperity while his wife begs the butcher for offcuts for their "imaginary dog" and writes notes to the milkman that serve as poignant markers of their poverty. It's a compelling, and profoundly moving, glimpse into the world of a certain type of working-class male, where "cruelty was an ideology" and mornings reserved for "remorse and sweet tea".

Perhaps it's not surprising that Burnside finds a way to escape: first into the alernative universe of LSD and then into the even greater joy of "being lost". His season in hell includes a spell in a mental hospital, a nearly lethal S&M relationship and the revelation that his father's darkness "is also mine". This exquisitely written memoir is, literally, a journey into a heart of darkness - a darkness here lit up by beauty and truth.

Hugo Hamilton's father was as swift with his fists as Burnside's, but his bouts of violence were, he believed, for the greater good of his children. The Sailor in the Wardrobe (Fourth Estate, £16.99/£15.99, 263pp) continues the story of his wonderful memoir, The Speckled People: of an Irish father so militantly anti-British that he refuses to allow English to be spoken at home, and a German mother who gets her children to draw their nightmares with crayons. Finely crafted and beautifully observed, this is a lyrical and moving exploration of its epigraph - that "disconnectedness is our identity".

Brian Thompson's prose is more pared-down, but packs just as strong a punch. In Keeping Mum (Atlantic, £12.99/£11.99, 232pp) he tells the astonishing tale of a childhood with a mother who would sleep for days, wander round naked and then go dancing with Yanks at night, and a father who, on one of his rare trips home, would set his puny son "herculean" challenges. His resilience is reflected in the writing, which is warm, funny and utterly without self-pity. Like Burnside's book, and Hamilton's, it's a fine example of that increasingly rare beast: the memoir not as money-spinning project, or as therapy, but art.