A collection of personal accounts from well-known writers is a revelation for Adele Geras
Truth or Dare: a book of secrets shared
Commissioned and edited by Justine Picardie; Picador pound;12.99
Justine Picardie has had a good idea. She's invited 11 writers to tell us something they've never told anyone in print before: some secret, some revelation, some small event from their lives we wouldn't otherwise have.
She says in her introduction that "memory reveals itself in myriad ways, with quiet fleeting moments holding their own against more apparently dramatic scenes".
Picardie is accustomed to seeking out buried truth. Her sister Ruth died of cancer and wrote a moving and brave account of her last months of life, Before I Say Goodbye, published in 1998. Justine Picardie has described and tried to explain her own grief in fiction and non-fiction, and this volume is an extension of her desire to know; to understand how things happen, to learn something that might provide answers to questions she didn't even know she had wanted to ask until the death of her deeply loved sibling.
The book is being marketed for adults but the stories would make excellent reading for anyone studying memoirs at school. Most of the tales show us the writers in their childhood or youth and there is much here to provoke interesting discussion in class or at assembly. It's a good book for showing teenagers that they are not alone. Sophie Dahl's account of her first proper relationship with a boy is vivid and truthful and many young girls will identify with much of it immediately.
There are three men writing here and eight women, a gender balance found in few other collections. The writers are well known. I've read books by eight of the contributors and I found I was choosing my favourites first and leaving the ones I knew less well until the end. There's a link between a writer and the person reading their work. There's also a kind of fondness you feel towards someone whose work you've admired, so I turned first of all to Julie Myerson, Alice Sebold, Zo Heller and Nick Hornby.
The same themes come up again and again. It doesn't affect the pleasure to be had from reading the book, but fathers figure large and so does young love. School is important in Esther Freud's story and her mother is the most important character in Andrea Ashworth's account of a stay in the United States. Alice Sebold revisits the rape she wrote about so brilliantly in her memoir Lucky and Jon Ronson is good at making the connection between his past (his family and how they had their portrait painted) and his future (in the person of his son).
Sabine Durrant's story about her father is wonderful. She sets out to find a man she never knew, and the way she goes about it is as exciting as a thriller. Her memoir has the satisfying shape of well-wrought fiction. The way it ends with a closer understanding between mother and daughter is truly moving and the characters Durrant meets along the way could have come out of a novel.
Zo Heller's father is the sort of person commonly described as "larger than life" and who is often difficult to live with. By concentrating on his lady friends, Heller emphasises the positive, but it's not difficult to read between the lines and sense some of the awkwardness along the way. Julie Myerson's father was clearly a very strange man indeed and the way she writes about him is both bleak and enthralling. What comes across in her story, as in others here, is a sense that the parents being described are complex people with problems of their own which their children are only now, in their own adulthood, beginning to understand.
William Fiennes's tale of a summer season working in Blackpool brings it all to us as though we were there. He's a travel writer so it's not surprising that his forte is showing us what a place is like. You can practically smell the candy-floss. Ashworth is also good at the geographical. The desert around Las Vegas and the city itself are there the moment we start reading, but neither we nor the author can forget the terrible memories of a violent home in Manchester that she has left behind.
Esther Freud captures exactly the horror of a school embarrassment and the irrational fears that can spring from the smallest beginnings. Her experience makes you cringe in sympathy and blush with shame. We know exactly how she felt and any child reading the story will empathise with her predicament.
Rachel Cusk talks about invisibility of every kind. Her story is one that any woman who is neither young nor very beautiful will recognise at once, and anyone who's ever bought school uniform or had it bought for them will wince at what she has to say. It's funny and sad.
There is not one dud in the collection. There are many pieces that will repay rereading, because second time around you notice the careful, small things you didn't see in your first headlong rush to share the secret.
The story that goes straight to your heart and stays there is also the shortest: an account by Nick Hornby of taking his autistic son, Danny, to the park. Hornby learned to drive so that he didn't have to use public transport, and his unadorned, unsentimental, funny and loving tale about Danny leaves you laughing and crying at the same time and wondering for the millionth time how Hornby does it. He doesn't seem to be able to put a foot wrong.
This book is being published a little early for Christmas, but it would make a good present, and reading it at a time of year when many people are spending time with their families might prevent some of our worst excesses.
If we have children, if we teach children, we should be aware that they're watching us. We might end up in the pages of their fiction and memoirs. We would be well advised to treat them kindly.
Truth or Dare is published in support of the Lavender Trust, a charity for young women with breast cancer. Ad le Geras's highly autobiographical novel for teenagers, Other Echoes, is published by David Fickling Books pound;9.99