Veteran biographer Holroyd (Bernard Shaw, 1998, etc.) digs up some more material on his most recent subject: his own family.
In the author’s previous memoir, Basil Street Blues (2000), he applied his trademark high-toned literary approach to personal history. That book brought Holroyd unexpected popular acclaim, as well as a fair amount of communication from readers who offered up more information about some of the foggier regions of his family history. These chips and fragments gave the writer an opportunity to add detail to the broad picture he painted in his earlier work. Holroyd takes a necessarily scattershot approach to his material; after all, something as rough and unplanned as a human life, much less numerous lives bound together by bloodlines and circumstance, can’t be neatly organized. But it’s remarkable how much he learned from complete strangers about relatives as close as his father and as mysterious as his grandfather’s mistress. Almost more interesting, however, are the details that Holroyd lets lie along the road of his discoveries, such as his penchant for visiting prostitutes as a young man and his secret marriage to novelist Margaret Drabble. Holroyd occasionally overidentifies with his subjects, a common problem with biographers and an especially deadly one for a writer who seems already too fond of introspection and who is essentially researching himself. Still, there are times—especially when revisiting his long, loving, tumultuous relationship with writer Philippa Pullar—when the power of his narrative takes off on a raw tear that is nothing less than exhilarating.
Navel-gazing, then, but redeemed by the author’s rich power of memory and mellifluous voice: the telling’s the thing, not the story.