Mosaic by Michael Holroyd

Bogged down in the family plot
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Five years ago, Michael Holroyd abandoned vast biographies in favour of something shorter and closer to home. Basil Street Blues was a family memoir-cum-autobiography, covering four generations: a touching and cunningly constructed piece of work, it told a melancholy tale of fortunes frittered away and thwarted aspirations, with the author hovering in the background like an all-observing Invisible Man.

No sooner had his book been published than he was deluged with letters. Not all were complimentary - "What a dirty little turd you are," barked an infuriated major - but the most intriguing suggested further lines of enquiry. These dealt, in particular, with his sad and beautiful Aunt Yolande; and Agnes May, the femme fatale who in the Thirties had caused his grandfather to abandon his family. Holroyd the sleuth swung into action, trawling through ancient telephone books, meeting elderly residents of quiet suburbs. He is a sympathetic recorder of the sad self-deceptions most of us survive by; Mosaic is replete with lives blighted by snobbery.

The child of divorced parents, he grew up with his paternal grandparents. Aunt Yolande lived with them, and it was known that the great love of her life had been a dashing soldier named Hazlehurst, who had doomed her to spinsterhood by marrying an Italian girl.

Bogus majors were a familiar source of mirth between the wars. Although Hazlehurst's war record was genuine, he fitted the part to perfection. Far from being an Old Etonian, he had been educated at the Hull Municipal Technical College.

Holroyd is keen on coincidences and the strange interlacing of lives. His researches revealed that Hazlehurst and the future husband of his grandfather's mistress, Agnes May, both kept boats at Chiswick. Reggie Beaumont-Thomas had been to Eton and, as a keen motorist, liked to live with "one foot on the accelerator, one foot in the grave", but otherwise was of no great interest.

And that, perhaps, is the undoing of Mosaic. Holroyd pays homage to the democratic notion that we all have a story to tell. But his book confirms that some lives are far duller than others, although he adds an exotic touch by telling us about his love affair with the fey-sounding writer Philippa Pullar. A detailed account of the mountain of paperwork engendered by Aunt Yolande's uneventful life may make for a pleasing paradox, but it's hardly a compelling read. The impulse behind Mosaic is entirely admirable, but Basil Street Blues told us all we needed to know.

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