An affecting, bittersweet portrait of an anonymous person rescued—if rescued it is—from obscurity quite by accident.
The yarn begins when British social worker Masters (Simon: The Genius in My Basement, 2012, etc.) discovered a load of books thrown out in a skip—what we’d call a dumpster—in one of those eureka moments for bibliophiles: “Clustered inside a broken shower basin, wedged into the gaps around a wrenched-off door, flapping in the breeze on top of the broken bricks and slates, were armfuls of books.” But not books, really. Instead, they were the diaries of someone who, with hurried hand and buffeted heart, filled 148 volumes from margin to margin with the marginalia of life, thousands of words. Tracing them back to a half-century earlier, Masters set to wondering about the identity of the author. It would be ungallant to reveal what he discovered in his quest for that identity except to say that the writer, whom he ultimately sniffed out, wasn’t opposed to being uncovered, and for subtle and complicated reasons. Part of Masters’ account is an entertaining tale of scholarly detection during which he relied on the talents of a graphologist of a sort who might have been put to work at Bletchley Park a couple of generations earlier. In a Sherlock-ian flash, she lists many of the writer’s details, to which an amazed Masters asked, “you can tell from the handwriting?” The reply: “I can tell that from reading what she’s written. Haven’t you tried doing that yet?” But part of his account is also a gentle meditation on lives of profoundly quiet desperation—the lives of most people, in other words, who will never be enshrined in diaries, even discarded ones, to say nothing of books about them. The sad developments in Masters’ own life as he researched and wrote make a poignant counterpoint.
A lovely, elegant book of interest to historians and biographers as much as to general readers.