February 13, 2010

A Life Like Other People's - Alan Bennett

A Life Like Other People's was lent to me by a work colleague with the phrase "he couldn't put it down once he started it" - definite praise. I had read Bennett's fiction, The Uncommon Reader last year and loved it and this biography of his parent's marriage and the life of their family was no exception - a beautiful, haunting read.

A Life Like Other People's is the core of Bennett's memoir, Untold Stories and it's focus is really on his parent's marriage and relationship but also the increasing episodes of depression his mother experiences when Bennett himself is middle aged. Bennett's writing is honest and stark - his descriptions of events clear and vivid and his reflections of his own behaviour and thoughts around particular events are introspective and telling. The title of the book comes from the feeling that the Bennett family was always a little bit apart from other families in their area - both in action and thought. Bennett himself felt this difference as a child and reflects on it now as an adult. What I found interesting is that the Bennett family was probably very similar to many other families of the era in lots of different ways - they had their family secrets (one in particular that Bennett discovers in the process of his mother being hospitalised for the first time for her depression) just as I am sure many other families did.

Bennett's reflections on the treatment of people with a mental illness and the elderly is a particular strong point of the book:

A life varies in social importance. We set most value on the life of a child.

Aunty Kathleen's life was at its lowest point of social valuation. She was seventy-three. She was senile. She was demented, and she was of no class or economic importance.

It is Bennett's writing that turns a fairly simple family story into an addictive and compelling read. I can't wait to read more.


Melissa said...

Oh, this sounds good ... onto the list it goes!

Anonymous said...

When I was reading Untold Stories last Christmas, this, the story of his parent's relationship, was by far the most fascinating bit. Though there is nothing overly sentimental about the way Bennett writes, it had me crying far too often. I'd been an admirer of Bennett's plays and of The Uncommon Reader but, after reading this, I gained a whole new appreciation for him and his writing.

Tamara said...

Wow, this sounds good. Shame I'm in a reading slump, and it's not yours to borrow. I enjoyed the Uncommon Reader, so I might have to watch out for this on other friends bookshelves.. thanks for your inspiring review.

Unknown said...

I still haven't read any Alan Bennett. I have The Uncommon Reader here, so really should get round to reading that.

JoAnn said...

I loved both The Uncommon Reader and The Clothes They Stood Up, and decided to read some of Bennett's nonfiction. I'll start with this - thanks!

Anonymous said...

I loved The Uncommon Reader and The History Boys so must track this down.

It sounds thematically similar to Bennett's The Lady in the Van which also looks at the treatment of the elderly/mentally ill by telling the story of a woman who lived in a caravan near Bennett. It waas funny and moving, possibly a good thing for you to read next?

Karen said...

Hi Melissa - I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

Hi thecaptivereader - It is definitely a tear jerker and emotion ringer type of book isn't it?

Hi Tamara - definitely a good one and a quick read to get into too so it might help your reading slump??

Hi Jackie - The Uncommon Reader is great - and another quick read too.

Hi JoAnn - I really hope you enjoy it as much as the fiction!

Hi adevotedreader - it sounds as though Bennett has a great skill for observing things from his own life or lives around them and using them effectively in his writing.

Molly said...

I did read the Uncommon Reader and thoroughly enjoyed it. This one sound equally good, but completely different! On the TBR list it goes :)

Hannah Stoneham said...

Thanks so much for this review - it was a pleasure to read. I am an enormous Alan Bennett fan and have read Writing Home and Untold Stories although I have not yet done this one - I will get to it eventually. I think that there is so much humour and human sympathy in Bennett's writing. thanks for sharing, Hannah

Karen said...

Hi Molly - that's pretty much right! A different focus but the same great writing.

Hi Hannah - so true - the empathy is one of the things that connects me to his writing. I will have to look out for more of it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds like a good one. I'm adding it to my TBR list. Thanks.

Karen said...

Hi everybookandcrany - I hope you enjoy it!

Samantha said...

Goodness, we read a lot of the same books! I read this one last year and I thought it very poignant, sad and well told. I also liked The History Boys - I saw the movie version but apparently it is based on a play of his.

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