Lily Dunn’s favourite memoirs


This season, Lily Dunn will be running an online course ‘Writing Compelling Memoir‘ for writers keen to develop their memoir craft and knowledge. Ahead of her course, which is now fully booked, Lily shares her top memoir reads to inspire your reading list. 

H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald

I love this part memoir, part biography, part nature book because of all of the above. Because it can’t be categorised and because Helen MacDonald shines the light not so much on herself but on her father, on TH White and a goshawk called Mabel who she attempts to tame and train in order to try to face her grief over her father’s sudden death. It also has some stunning passages, and wonderful psychological insights into her own emotional process, into TH White’s psychology and that of her beloved raptor.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City – Nick Flynn

While the subject matter is extraordinary – son comes across estranged father when he works as a social worker in a homeless shelter in Boston, where his father is a resident – it’s Flynn’s form that really attracts attention. Flynn is a poet, and this is not only fragmentary, but lyrical, playful and surprising. In the light of this reunion, Flynn pieces together what he knows of his father’s life, alongside his own to produce a wonderful mosaic that asks questions about love, loss and the legacy of neglect and addiction.

Heart Berries – Terese Marie Mailhot

This memoir evolved as a means of recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and can be experienced as this in its rawness and honesty. In its beautifully visceral style too. It is about reconciliation with a dysfunctional family, but also with herself and her Native American heritage. A powerful read.

But You Did Not Come Back – Marceline Loridan-Ivens

A beautiful heart-breaking love letter to a father who was separated from his daughter when they were both taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, and how this premature severance of such an important relationship haunted her entire life, set against the greater pain of a family and, of course, nation split apart by war, so painful it’s almost too difficult to comprehend.

Stag’s Leap – Sharon Olds

Not strictly a memoir, but a book of poetry about Old’s divorce that is heartfelt and wise, and goes deep into the human psyche and what it means to love and lose that love to another woman. Sharon Olds lays herself bare with honesty and dignity, and what she leaves us with is a beautiful piece of art.

Lily Dunn is an author, mentor and lecturer. Her first novel was published by Portobello Books, and her personal essays by Granta, Aeon, Litro, The Real Story and The Mechanics’ Institute. She has just finished writing a memoir about her father and the legacy of his various addictions. She is studying for a doctorate at Birkbeck, University of London, where she joins a discussion around life writing and ways to protect ourselves when drawing on personal material. She is co-editor of A Wild and Precious Life: Addiction, physical and mental illness and its aftermath: a collection of stories and poetry from writers in recovery: and co-runs London Lit Lab, with fellow writer and friend, Zoe Gilbert.


Published 8 May 2019