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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fiona Sturges

The best memoirs and biographies of 2022

Memoir and biography Illustration: Guardian Design/Jonny Wan

Celebrity memoirs often follow the same trajectory: a difficult childhood followed by early professional failure, then dazzling success and redemption. But this year has yielded a handful of autobiographies from famous types determined to mix things up. Richard E Grant’s vivacious and heartfelt A Pocketful of Happiness (Gallery) recounts a year spent caring for his late wife, Joan Washington, who was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly before Christmas in 2020, and the “head-and-heart-exploding overwhelm” that followed. The book interweaves hospital appointments with memories of the couple’s courtship plus showbiz stories of Grant at the Golden Globes, or hijinks on the set of Star Wars. This juxtaposition of glamour and grief shouldn’t work, but it does.

Minnie Driver’s Managing Expectations (Manila) comprises spry and amusing autobiographical essays that detail pivotal moments in the actor’s life. These include her experience of becoming a mother, cutting off all her hair on a family holiday in France and the time her father sent her home to England from Barbados alone, aged 11, including a stopover at a Miami hotel, as punishment for being rude to his girlfriend (Driver got her revenge by buying up half the gift shop on her dad’s credit card). She also recalls the disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein bemoaning her lack of sex appeal, which she notes was rich from a man “whose shirts were always aggressively encrusted with egg/tuna fish/mayo”.

Diary Madly, Deeply The Alan Rickman Diaries Edited by Alan Taylor Canongate, £25

Alan Rickman’s Madly, Deeply (Canongate) diaries provide insight into the inner life of the late actor who, despite his many successes, frets over roles turned down and rails at the perceived ineptitude of script writers, directors and co-stars. He nonetheless keeps glittering company, hobnobbing with musicians, prime ministers and Hollywood megastars, and almost single-handedly keeps the tills ringing at the Ivy. And while he seethes at critics’ reviews of his own work, his assessments of less-than-perfect films and plays are so deliciously scathing, they deserve a book of their own.

Viola Davis
In her memoir, Finding Me, Viola Davis calls out the racial bias in the film industry. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

In Finding Me (Coronet), the actor Viola Davis gives a clear-eyed account of her deprived childhood and her rise to fame, along with the violence, abuse and racism she endured along the way. The book is not so much a triumphant tale of overcoming adversity as a howl of fury at the injustice of it all. Davis may now be able to survey her career from a place of Oscar-winning privilege, but she doesn’t hesitate in calling out her industry and its ingrained racial bias, which leads to white actors landing plum roles and “relegates [Black actors] to best friends, to strong, loudmouth, sassy lawyers and doctors”. In The Light We Carry (Viking), the follow-up to her bestselling memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama also touches on the impossible-to-meet expectations that dog anyone trying to make it in a world that sees them as different, or deficient. “I happen to be well acquainted with the burdens of representation and the double standards for excellence that steepen the hills so many of us are trying to climb,” she writes. “It remains a damning fact of life that we ask too much of those who are marginalised and too little of those who are not.”

Homelands: The History of a Friendship by Chitra Ramaswamy homelands-hardback-cover-9781838852665

Away from the world of global fame and its attendant scrutiny, the journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s touching memoir Homelands (Canongate) documents the author’s friendship with 97-year-old Henry Wuga, who escaped Nazi persecution as a teenager and began a new life in Glasgow. Interwoven with Wuga’s recollections is Ramaswamy’s own family story – she is the daughter of Indian immigrant parents – through which she digs deep into matters of identity, belonging and the meaning of home. Similar themes are explored in Ira Mathur’s multilayered Love the Dark Days (Peepal Tree), which, set in India, Britain and the Caribbean, reads like a fictional family saga as it leaps back and forth in time. The book charts the lives of the author’s wealthy, dysfunctional forebears against a backdrop of patriarchal hegemony and a collapsing empire.

The Last Days (Ebury) by Ali Millar and Sins of My Father (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Lily Dunn each tell harrowing stories of families torn apart by religious dogma. Millar, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness on the Scottish borders, reflects on a childhood haunted by predictions of Armageddon and blighted by her eating disorder. As an adult she marries, within the church, a controlling man and has a baby, though at 30 she makes her escape and is “disfellowshipped”, meaning she is cut off for ever from her family. Meanwhile, Dunn recalls losing her father to a commune in India presided over by the cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, where disciples were encouraged to “live in love”, meaning they could engage in guilt-free sex. Dunn’s book is her attempt to pin down this charismatic, mercurial and unreliable figure and the ripple effects of his actions on those closest to him. In Matt Rowland Hill’s scabrously funny Original Sins (Chatto & Windus), it is the author who is the agent of chaos. The son of evangelical Christians, Hill shoots heroin at the funeral of a friend who died from an overdose, and tries to score drugs on a visit to Bethlehem. Were his account a novel, you might accuse it of being too far-fetched.

In Kit de Waal’s first autobiographical work, Without Warning and Only Sometimes (Tinder Press), the author recalls how she and her four siblings would go to bed hungry while their father blew his earnings on a new suit, and her mother would work off her rage by collecting empty milk bottles and throwing them at a wall in the back yard. After a bout of depression in her teens, De Waal eventually found comfort and escape in literature. Her book is a brilliant evocation of the times in which she lived, when children learned to make their own entertainment and adults didn’t talk about their feelings, and a funny and tender portrait of a complicated family.

The Crane Wife b y CJ Hauser

The Crane Wife (Viking), by the American author CJ Hauser, began life as a confessional essay about the time she travelled to the gulf coast of Texas to study whooping cranes 10 days after breaking off her engagement. Published in the Paris Review, the essay blew up online, prompting Hauser to expand her thoughts on love and relationships into this thoughtful and fitfully funny book. Across 17 confessional essays, we find her furtively spreading her grandparents’ ashes at their old house in Martha’s Vineyard, contemplating breast reduction surgery and reflecting on her relationships with a high-school boyfriend and a divorcee who is clearly still in love with his ex.

Finally, some excellent biographies. Agatha Christie: A Very Elusive Woman (Hodder & Stoughton) by Lucy Worsley is a riveting portrait of the queen of crime viewed through a feminist lens. The book acknowledges Christie’s flaws, most notably in her views on race, while portraying her as ahead of her time in putting women at the centre of her stories and showing how older women “have more to offer the world than meets the eye”. Super-Infinite (Faber), winner of this year’s Baillie Gifford prize, is a biography of the 17th-century preacher and poet John Donne by Katherine Rundell, the children’s novelist and Renaissance scholar. Ten years in the writing, the book approaches its subject with wit and vivacity, bringing to life Donne’s inner world through his verse.

The Escape Artist- The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz

Jonathan Freedland’s The Escape Artist (John Murray) is a remarkable account of the life of Rudolf Vrba, a prisoner at Auschwitz who was put to work in “Kanada”, a store of belongings removed from inmates which revealed that the line fed to them was a lie: they were not there to be resettled but murdered. Vrba and his friend Fred Wetzler pledged to escape and tell the world about the Nazis’ industrialised murder, hiding beneath a woodpile for three days before slipping through the fence to freedom. The horror of this story lies not just in its account of “cold-blooded extermination” but in the slowness of authorities to react to the Vrba-Wetzler report, which laid out the workings of Auschwitz, complete with maps showing the chambers. Freedland recalls the words of the French-Jewish philosopher Raymond Aron, who, when asked about the Holocaust, said: “I knew, but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

• To browse all biography and memoir books included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2022 visit Delivery charges may apply.

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