Five Underrated Memoirs and Biographies of 2014

17th Dec 2014

Men We Reaped Cover
These memoirs and biographies written by and about women are not necessarily the tell-all confessionals that many publishers seem to be keen for women to write, but ones that offer an exploration of the human condition and express beautifully the hardship, loss, joy and the strangeness of life...

Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Dr Tuula Karjalainen

She created the unmistakable tubby creatures that have captivated generations of children; even if you did not come across those dreamy valley dwellers, The Moomins, as a child, the landscape of Tove Jansson’s life is as wild and mesmerising as those she conjured in her stories. In this biography, Tuula Karjalainen pays respect to Jansson’s literary and artistic output in equal measure. She may be renowned for the legacy of The Moonins, but Karjainen explores Jansson’s work as an artist, as well as a writer of novels and short stories for grown ups. The book is interspersed with photographs and glorious specimens of her art. It is a dedication to the talent and wisdom of a woman whose works exemplify the delightful yet strange world of childhood.

The Great Below, A Journey Into Loss by Maddy Paxman

Many people who have lost a life partner have spoken about how they found Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a great consolation when dealing with grief. How can anyone truly put something as gargantuan and inexplicable as grief into words? It is a challenge for any writer, and Maddy Paxman’s memoir about the death and aftermath of her husband, the Irish poet Michael Donaghy, speaks candidly and with compelling, and often uncomfortable, insight into the process of bereavement. Much has been written about Michael, and the poetry world mourned his sudden death for a long time. But this comes from a woman piecing together her own story, talking honestly about the frictions in a relationship with such a boundlessly charismatic poet, her endeavour to raise a child single-handedly and reflections into why we struggle to adequately discuss death. This is not a flailing widow’s memoir. It is a woman navigating back from absolute darkness into a new understanding about life and loss.

Eleanor Marx: A Life by Rachel Holmes

Her surname instantly gives her away as the daughter of revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, yet Eleanor Marx, perhaps the first modern feminist, was a truly remarkable figure in her own right. Rachel Holmes’s biography revives the inspiring, yet tragic life of a woman rarely mentioned in the history books, stating “Karl Marx was the theory; Eleanor Marx was the practice.” Not only was she her father’s helpmate as his editor/translator, but what she learned working alongside him she put into practice, and emerged as an activist championing human rights, a political leader and organiser, an actress, an orator and linguist. Holmes’s research is rigorous – we see Eleanor as a tireless and passionate revolutionary, who, despite her personal integrity and strength of character, is ultimately betrayed by those around her with less moral intentions. The biography takes us into the heart of the creative and political circles of the 1900s, showcasing a woman striving against convention and oppression.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

This richly textured and truly harrowing memoir by American novelist Jesmyn Ward emerged around the time of the shooting of black teenager Michael Brown and the consequent decision of the jury not to indict the white police officer that killed him. It is a book for our time; the morbid reality of young black life in the Deep South that is still, and continues to be, dominated by poverty and feelings of profound inadequacy and hopelessness. Ward traces her life growing up in rural Mississippi against the legacy of gender and race inequality. She recalls her parents’ break up and mother’s struggle as a single parent, cleaning for middle class white people in order to send her daughter to boarding school and offer her the opportunity to break out of the morbid cycle that herself, her family and friends are bound to. Alongside her own account – having become the only member of her family to leave home and pursue higher education – she examines the lives of five young black men, including her brother; tragic lives cut short by suicide, shootings and overdoses. Ward lays bare the uncomfortable truth with devastating clarity, shining a light on a dark and forgotten part of America.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

A greatly deserved winner of the most prestigious accolade in nonfiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize, H is for Hawk can be said to be more than just a memoir; it is a piece of sublime nature writing, exploring the history and art of falconry and the process of training her new Goshawk, Mabel. This acquisition of the new bird and attempts at training it come at the wake of Macdonald’s father’s death, and so it is a journey that begins in the depths of grief and pain, and which she admits becomes a harrowing, yet rewarding experience. The book is layered so richly – Macdonald intersects her own narrative with an exploration of a talismanic work by the writer TB White, The Goshawk. Falconry isn’t just a hobby, or an obsession; it is presented as a way of life, and a way to heal.


If you enjoy these, some other outstanding non-fiction books we loved this year include; Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead and Beloved Strangers by Maria Chaudhuri.