Diana Athill's writing has been one of my most rewarding finds over the past few years. I started with Stet and was bowled over by it, and have since read Somewhere Towards the End, and After the Funeral, both very impressive. So in a way I have been working backwards through her memoirs, which is rather a shame as I usually like to start things at the beginning. And yet when we get to know people we start with the present and gradually uncover their past, so perhaps it is in the natural order of things.
In fact I do not think it matters which book you start with. Every one of her volumes is written in the same refreshingly honest, reflective manner, utterly self-deprecatory and without false pride. She recognises her own shortcomings, but not always her own strengths.
There is not a dull sentence to be found in this book and what I particularly relish is the way she analyses every aspect of her life - the world around her, the people in her life, what happens to her, the effect on her and, stepping back, the way we react to the events in our lives. She is so deeply reflective and philosophical I usually learn something about myself in the process of reading her books.
I am putting the remaining Diana Athill books on my wishlist - I just wish she were 30 years younger so that there would be more to look forward to, but then she would be a different person entirely, for we are shaped by our history.
The author was a major figure in modern publishing during the second half of the twentieth century and this book is the first (I believe) in a set of memoirs about her long and distinguished life. It's not a long book and the author, I suspect, has been very careful in what has been selected to be included but it is brilliant at conveying atmosphere and especially her feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Diana's childhood was as part of the impoverished upper middle class in the 1920s and 30s. Her family owned a large house in Norfolk but her own parents had a difficult marriage and Diana was very much left to fend for herself. A broken engagement left her with overwhelming feelings of loss which she outlines well here and this then determines the shape of the rest of her life. She is very honest about how she feels and about how this one event affected her and the writing is very touching.
The theme of the autobiography is the need for the author to determine how far her life has had any worth or whether there was any point in her living at all. She is unsure of her conclusion when considering this matter and she then goes on to think about her death and the end of her life and how she wants to live that - if this seems morbid please be assured that it isn't and there is plenty for the reader to think about when assessing their own life.
This isn't a particularly long book but it is a thoughtful read giving you an insight into feelings that you may not have experienced personally. The author has, by trying to be as truthful as possible, raised some questions about the value of life that we all need to consider.
I really could not put this book down. I have read two other Diana Athill books and find her style very readable and her honesty very disarming. Having borrowed the copy I read from the library, I bought this as a present for a friend as I want to hear her opinion of it.