The top memoirs and biographies of the year 2023.
For many authors, writing a memoir is a rare and special occurrence, but this is not the case for poet and novelist Blake Morrison. After already writing about his mother and father in previous memoirs, he now focuses on his siblings in his latest book, Two Sisters (Borough). The memoir delves into the life of Gill, his younger sister who passed away in 2019 due to heart failure caused by alcohol abuse, and also sheds light on his half-sister Josie, who was the result of his father’s affair with a married neighbor. For years, Josie’s true lineage was kept secret. In this poignant and vivid account, Morrison shares their struggles with tenderness, making for a heartbreakingly sad read.
O Brother (Canongate) is another brutal and brilliant sibling memoir in which the Kill Your Friends author John Niven recalls the life and death of his charismatic, troubled brother, Gary, who took his own life in 2010. It’s with both humour and pathos that he recalls his and Gary’s early life growing up in Irvine, Ayrshire, their diverging adult trajectories and the “Chernobyl of the soul” felt by Niven and his family after his brother’s suicide.
Natasha Walter’s book, “Before the Light Fades” from Virago, explores the author’s mother, Ruth, who committed suicide at the age of 75 with a note saying, “Please be happy for me. It is a logical, positive decision.” This event prompts Walter to delve into her family’s history of activism, beginning with her grandfather Georg who protested against the Nazis in the 1930s. The book also covers her mother’s involvement with the anti-war group Committee of 100, founded by Bertrand Russell, and Walter’s own participation in direct action with Extinction Rebellion.
In her 2020 memoir “House of Glass,” Hadley Freeman shares the harrowing experiences of her Jewish grandparents and their siblings during World War II. In her latest book, “Good Girls” (4th Estate), she shifts the focus onto her own life, specifically her teenage years that were greatly affected by anorexia. This book not only bravely chronicles her time in the hospital and her journey to recovery, but also sheds light on the complex and often misunderstood disorder.
Hua Hsu’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Stay True (published by Picador), is a moving and eloquent reflection on guilt, memory, and male friendship. Through the lens of his own experiences, the author mourns the loss of his college friend Ken, who was killed in 1998 after leaving a party. Similarly, Jonathan Rosen’s book The Best Minds (published by Penguin) explores the theme of friendship through the story of Michael Laudor, Rosen’s childhood friend with whom he shared a passion for writing. As adults, Laudor battled schizophrenia and ultimately committed a shocking murder in 1998. Through Laudor’s story, Rosen sheds light on the flaws within the mental health system and how they failed those in need of assistance.
Safiya Sinclair, in her book How to Say Babylon (4th Estate), shares her traumatic childhood experiences as the daughter of a militant Rastafarian. She describes the fear instilled by her father and his expectations for her to become a submissive wife to a Rastaman, suppressing her own voice and desires. Despite this, Sinclair found solace in poetry during her teenage years and defied her father’s wishes to create her own path. Noreen Masud’s A Flat Place (Hamish Hamilton) also explores the impact of a domineering father, as the author travels to various stark landscapes in Britain, such as Morecambe Bay, Orford Ness, and Orkney. Through her reflections on exile, heritage, and her troubled childhood in Lahore, Pakistan, Masud’s writing evokes a melancholic tone.
Titled “an anti-memoir”, Wish I Was Here (published by Serpent’s Tail) features M John Harrison, known for his Viriconium works, as he looks back on his old notebooks and reflects on the evolution of his character and writing over a career spanning fifty years. Despite sharing snippets from his life, this unique and eccentric book also serves as a writing guide, where Harrison candidly shares his struggles with writing. He states, “The challenge of writing is always a matter of who you used to be, and figuring out who to become next.”
In the book Thunderclap by Laura Cumming, the art critic from the Observer, the lives of her father, Scottish artist James Cumming, and 17th-century Dutch artist Carel Fabritius are intertwined. Fabritius died at the young age of 32 in a tragic explosion known as the Delft “thunderclap”, which caused the roof of his home to collapse. The author also shares her own artistic journey, starting from her visits to the National Gallery in London to see Fabritius’s A View of Delft. Cumming’s eloquent descriptions of each painting in the book are worth reading on their own.
Wifedom (Penguin) is a book written by Anna Funder, a former human rights lawyer. It combines elements of memoir and biography to tell the story of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the first wife of George Orwell who passed away at the age of 39. After reading Orwell’s works, Funder noticed that he rarely mentioned Eileen, despite her involvement in his research trips and collaborations on works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four. This led Funder to shift her focus “from the work to the life, and from the man to the wife”, resulting in a detailed portrayal of a charming and practical woman who made sacrifices for the man she loved.
Red Memory (Faber) by Tania Branigan, the former China correspondent for the Guardian, is not a traditional biography but rather a collection of portraits. It compiles extraordinary firsthand testimonies from individuals who experienced the Cultural Revolution in China, a tumultuous and oppressive period that lasted for ten years starting in 1966. One of Branigan’s interviewees is Zhang Hongbing, now 60 years old, who as a teenager reported his own mother to the Communist party, resulting in her arrest and execution. Branigan accompanies Zhang to his mother’s grave where, overcome with emotion, he expresses regret for not being taught to think independently by his mother.
Jonny Steinberg’s richly detailed Winnie & Nelson (William Collins) documents the relationship of the late anti-apartheid activist and first South African president Nelson Mandela and his second wife, the former social worker Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died in 2018. Both fought racism at great personal cost, though, as this insightful biography reveals, they also inflicted immeasurable cruelty on one another.
Mary Gabriel’s book, “Madonna: A Rebel Life,” published by Coronet, vividly depicts the journey of Madonna Louise Ciccone, from a determined aspiring dancer to a monumental figure in pop culture. Alongside chronicling her rise to fame and constant reinventions, it also places her within a larger societal and cultural landscape. This is not just a tale of record-breaking sales and transformation, but also of a young woman who faced the loss of her deeply religious mother and boldly fought against patriarchal structures, the conservative right, and the Catholic Church. Another comprehensive account of a legendary icon is found in Barbra Streisand’s “My Name Is Barbra,” published by Century. Spanning 992 pages, it meticulously traces her path from Brooklyn to Hollywood.
Both books depict the hard work and dedication required for fame, but Erotic Vagrancy by Roger Lewis focuses on the extravagant lifestyle of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. This biography delves into the well-known tumultuous relationship between the two actors and their lavish habits. The title is taken from a heated statement from the Vatican during the filming of Cleopatra in 1963, accusing the couple of “erotic vagrancy”. Lewis’s incredibly entertaining 650-page book is filled with shocking stories that showcase the couple’s intense obsession with each other and their chaotic and indulgent ways (such as renting a yacht for their dogs). Despite being portrayed as monstrous and self-absorbed, Burton and Taylor are mesmerizing figures in this biography.