Colin Grant’s life writing reads

Life Writing Prize

Author and historian Colin Grant is one of the judges of the 2019 Life Writing Prize. He shares a few of his favourite books in the genre and explains what makes them special.

Diana Athill’s After a Funeral is a brutally honest account of herself when, as a middle-aged woman, she has a spring awakening with a younger, exiled Egyptian writer, Didi. He lambasts her for what he sees as pretentiousness and an overbearing quintessential Englishness. Athill is unsparing and unflinching in her precise depiction of a seemingly one-sided love affair that ends tragically.

Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is a wonderful romance of mother-and-son who take to the road in search of a better and more adventurous life. It’s very funny, often darkly so. It’s a tough and tender memoir which captures the flavour of the times  (never-had-it-so-good consumer-driven 1950s USA) and lives lived with uncertainty. 

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is magical writing. The brutality of fact of death and the near paralytic potential of grief is deftly and intelligently portrayed. I love almost everything Didion writes; she is sassy, often hilarious, innovative and such good company as a writer

Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War is almost unbearable to read, but read it you must, for this is a startling tour-de-force of oral history that opens up (for me at least) an unseen and unspoken world. The Russian women who fought in WW2 are as tough as their male compatriots, and Alexievich shows how they struggle to maintain their dignity, integrity and femininity at a time of catastrophic total war.

Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a darker rendition of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It is still, at times, just as searingly funny as the novel. Winterson is particularly good at dialogue, and uses it adroitly to show up the emotions in a scene and the power dynamic between individuals. This is a powerful tale of rejection, hope and redemption.


The deadline for the Life Writing Prize 2019 is 1 February 2019. It is free to enter. Find out more and how you can get involved here