Memoirs: The year's best books reviewed

As strange as Springer
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I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness," says Hilary Mantel in Giving up the Ghost (Fourth Estate, £16.99), "and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you're weak, it's childish to pretend to be strong."

If autobiography is a weakness, it is clearly one that's on the rise. Publishing schedules now teem with accounts of miserable childhoods, adolescent agonies and struggles with parents, illness and identity. The pitfalls, even for established writers, are obvious. Lacking the distance of fiction, how do you find the right tone? How do you make it vivid, yet truthful, lively but not falsely dramatic, thoughtful but not weighed down by analysis?

"I hardly know how to write about myself" says Mantel. "I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear? ...this story can be told only once, and I need to get it right."

She needn't have worried. In her agonised attempts to wrest the truth from memory and piece together the fragments of a life dogged by severe ill health, medical incompetence and excruciating physical pain, she has written one of the outstanding memoirs of recent years, a model of breathtaking clarity that's utterly without self-pity.

Illness is also a prominent theme in Sue Miller's The Story of My Father (Bloomsbury, £12.99), but here it is the illness of an ageing parent. "It was in part to exorcise my final haunting images of my father," she explains, "that I wanted to look at, to explain, the way he fragmented and lost himself in his illness". A bestselling writer of fiction, Miller, like Mantel, grapples with the voice and form of her first venture into non-fiction, raising questions about memory and the self. The result is a clear-sighted and moving exploration of the complexities of a relationship and the progress of a disease .

"When you're small you know nothing" says Hugo Hamilton in The Speckled People (Fourth Estate, £7.99), his account of a German-Irish childhood in 1950s Dublin. When he and his sister get stuck in the wardrobe, nobody understands their cries for help. "My father wants all the Irish people to cross back over into the Irish language so he made a rule that we can't speak English", he explains matter-of-factly. In this stunning memoir of a family caught between cultures, Hamilton brings the deceptive simplicity of the child's eye view to a multi-textured narrative of extraordinary richness.

There's a strong international component to a number of recent memoirs, with culture clashes as something of a running theme. "Nation and tribe are confused in my mind," says Isabel Allende in My Invented Country (Flamingo, £18.99), the story of a life divided between her native Chile and the America which became her home. "I never fit in anywhere", she adds, an observation that appears to be almost axiomatic as a starting point for the writing life. It is an interesting tale, but one that lacks the narrative power of her best fiction. "I wrote my first book by letting my fingers run over the typwriter keys," she confesses, "just as I am writing this, without a plan." Perhaps that isn't always such a great idea.

Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, is another bestselling writer who has made California her home. The Opposite of Fate (Flamingo, £15.99) is part memoir, part "musings on my life, including the metaphors I used as an eight-year-old child." Scattered among them are some interesting thoughts on inter-generational culture clashes and perceptions of fate. But this first foray into non-fiction is a prime example of an alarming trend: the writer who cashes in on their literary celebrity without much evidence of the skills which won it.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez's mesmerising Living to Tell the Tale (Cape, £18.99) is firmly in the other camp: the writer who brings to the life the accumulated riches of the life's work. Here, clashes with his father confirm a sense of vocation which started very much earlier: clutching the bars of his crib, while yelling out for someone to change his nappies. "It was not", he explains, "a question of hygienic prejudice but esthetic concern, and ...I believe it was my first experience as a writer".

Shit, both literal and metaphorical, features prominently in one of the most unusual memoirs of the year, by first-time writer Augusten Burroughs. Running with Scissors (Atlantic, £14.99) is a funny, frenetic and at times profoundly shocking account of a childhood spent in a family which treats the contents of the toilet bowl as "messengers from heaven". Like a mix of Jerry Springer and Seinfeld, this impressive debut is a sobering reminder that truth can be stranger than fiction - stranger, even, than American TV.