Books of the year 2014: Literary memoirs

This year's revealing offerings were intelligent, moving and utterly fearless

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 04 December 2014 20:00 GMT

Despite never having heard the term "bibliomemoir" until it was used by one of her reviewers, Rebecca Mead still managed to write one of the best, The Road to Middlemarch (Granta, £9.99). A beguiling mixture of literary criticism, biography and personal memoir, Mead writes intelligently and movingly about her "profound" and lifelong experience with George Eliot's classic text. A good novel is something to get lost in; but she explains, it's also somewhere to find oneself.

Dorothea Brooke is one of the few heroines Samantha Ellis doesn't mention in How to Be a Heroine: Or, what I've learned from reading too much (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), a veritable feast of familiar figures – from Anne Shirley to Catherine Earnshaw. In a glorious celebration of the power of fiction, Ellis astutely traces everything she's learned about life, love and career (a surprising amount of the latter from Shirley Conran's famous Eighties bonkbuster Lace) to the stories that have seeped into her unconscious.

From the pleasures of reading to the tribulations of writing, Gary Shteyngart's memoir Little Failure (Penguin, £8.99) is a captivating Bildungsroman that begins with the author as a runny-nosed asthmatic struggling for breath in Leningrad in the late Seventies before he and his parents move to America (and discover the magic of a steroid-based inhaler). Through the prism of his own family's experiences, Shteyngart tells a poignant story of a people torn between two cultures: "We Soviet Jews were simply invited to the wrong party. And then we were too frightened to leave. Because we didn't know who we were." As with all good Russian writing, there's an undercurrent of melancholy, but this is shot through with hilarity, and Shteyngart never takes himself too seriously.

The vulnerability Helen Macdonald shows in H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) is of a different nature. The winner of this year's Samuel Johnson Prize is one of the most captivating books I've read; an achievement all the more incredible considering goshawk training seems far too specialist a subject to have widespread appeal. Macdonald, however, defies these odds; weaving together an account of grief following her father's death, her lifelong fascination with hawks, and a biography of the novelist and amateur falconer T. H. White that takes on mythic proportions.

Artist Marion Coutts's account of the death of her husband, the Independent art critic Tom Lubbock, from a brain tumour, The Iceberg (Atlantic, £14.99) is a fearless depiction of loss so raw it couldn't but melt the coldest of hearts. But Coutts is also something of an alchemist when it comes to language, the relief of her prose a uniquely beautiful landscape of emotion, thrown into sharp relief by the fact she's charting her husband's linguistic decline: "We are elastic. Within our stretch, what one lacks the other makes up."

An exquisite but completely coincidental symmetry means that we're also offered the flipside to Coutts' tale of illness. One of the UK's foremost neurosurgeons, Henry Marsh's Do No Harm (Phoenix, £8.99) is written from behind the operating theatre's doors and amongst the very visceral of our grey matter. It provides fascinating insight into what it's like to play God, and Marsh is unflinchingly honest, near uncomfortably so on occasion, about the highs and lows that unfurl when holding not just another human being's life, but their very consciousness, in his hands.

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