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Best biographies and memoirs of 2021

·5 min read

In a bonanza year for memoirs, Ruth Coker Burks got us off to a strong start with All the Young Men (Trapeze), a clear-eyed and poignant account of her years spent looking after Aids patients in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the 1980s. While visiting a friend in hospital, Burks witnessed a group of nurses drawing straws over who should enter a room labelled “Biohazard”, the ward for men with “that gay disease”. And so she took it upon herself to sit with the dying and bury them when their families wouldn’t. Later, as the scale of fear and prejudice became apparent, she helped patients with food, transport, social security and housing, often at enormous personal cost. Her book, written with Kevin Carr O’Leary, finds light in the darkness as it reveals the love and camaraderie of a hidden community fighting for its life.

Sadness and joy also go hand-in-hand in What It Feels Like for a Girl (Penguin), an exuberant account of Paris Lees’s tearaway teenage years in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, where “the streets are paved wi’ dog shit”. Her gender nonconformity is just one aspect of an adolescence that also features bullying, violence, prostitution, robbery and a spell in a young offenders’ institute. Yet despite the many traumas, Lees finds joy and kinship in the underground club scene and a group of drag queens who cocoon her in love and laughter.

Miriam Margolyes’s This Much Is True (John Murray) traces her path from cherished child of an Oxford GP to Bafta-winning actor to chat-show sofa staple, in a raucously indiscreet memoir replete with fruity tales of sexual experimentation, tricky co-stars and Olympic-level farting. And Bob Mortimer’s winningly heartfelt And Away… (Gallery) reveals the brilliant highs and terrible lows of his childhood as the “irritating runt” of four brothers, his initial career as a solicitor and subsequent reinvention as a celebrated comic alongside his partner in crime, Vic Reeves.

Themes of identity and belonging underpin Beautiful Country (Viking), Qian Julie Wang’s elegantly affecting account of her move from China to New York where she lived undocumented and under threat of deportation, and Nadia Owusu’s powerful Aftershocks (Sceptre), in which the author recalls a peripatetic childhood as the daughter of a volatile Armenian-American mother and a Ghanaian father, a United Nations official who died when she was 13. Both books tell remarkable stories of displacement, heartache and resilience.

1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows (Bodley Head) is another tale of extraordinary resilience, as the artist Ai Weiwei vividly reflects on his own life and that of his father, who was a poet. Both men fell foul of the Chinese authorities: Ai’s father, Ai Qing, was exiled to a place nicknamed “Little Siberia”, where he lived with his young son in a dug-out pit with a roof made from mud and branches, while Ai himself was imprisoned in 2011 for 11 weeks on spurious tax charges. Lea Ypi’s Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Penguin) is a beautifully written account of life under a crumbling Stalinist system in Albania and the shock and chaos of what came next. In telling her story and examining the political systems in which she was raised, the author and LSE professor asks tough questions about the nature of freedom.

In Maybe I Don’t Belong Here (Bluebird), the actor David Harewood lays bare his struggles with racial injustice and mental illness, and shows how these things are connected. Harewood’s childhood was punctuated by racist abuse; later, as he tried to get his career off the ground, he was bullied by colleagues and critics. At 23, he had a psychotic breakdown during which it took six police officers to restrain him, and was dispatched to a psychiatric ward where, he learns from his hospital records, he was described as a “large black man” and administered drugs at four times the recommended dose. His recollections of his unravelling, treatment and recovery are acutely drawn.

Both/And: A Life in Many World Huma Abedin
Both/And: A Life in Many World Huma Abedin

Huma Abedin’s electrifying memoir Both/And: A Life in Many Worlds (Simon & Schuster) grapples with her multiple identities as a woman with Indian parents, who was born in Michigan and raised in Saudi Arabia. It is also a brave and unflinching account of her job as aide to Hillary Clinton and her years as the wife of Anthony Weiner, the congressman at the centre of a sexting scandal that landed him in prison, prompted an investigation by child services and ultimately derailed Clinton’s presidential campaign. Of the night Abedin learned her work emails had been discovered on her husband’s laptop, which would lead to the FBI reopening its investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information, she recalls: “I wrote one line in my notebook. ‘I do not know how I am going to survive this. Help me God.’”

The actor Brian Cox lost his father to pancreatic cancer when he was eight years old, his mother battled with mental illness and his childhood was one of almost Dickensian poverty. But you won’t find self-pity in his meandering but amusingly irreverent memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (Quercus). Instead, we get a whistlestop tour of his working life, during which he takes entertaining pot-shots at Johnny Depp (“overrated”), Steven Seagal (“ludicrous”) and Edward Norton (“a pain in the arse”).

Finally, two terrific biographies. Frances Wilson’s smart and scholarly Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence (Bloomsbury) paints a vivid picture of a brilliant writer who was “censored and worshipped” in his lifetime, and remained furious at the world and at those not sufficiently cognisant of his genius.

And Paula Byrne’s The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym (William Collins), about the British postwar novelist whom Philip Larkin compared to Jane Austen, is a touching and revealing portrait of a flawed romantic and a free spirit.

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