Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2009
Traipsing a jaded gaze over the year's literary offerings, one invariably keeps nose and ears to the ground for the faint pulse of anything that may turn out to be a little special. This year's big surprise is 'Mummy Knew'. Penned in her own words by debut writer Lisa James, this wonderful gem effortlessly sweeps aside the myriad tired 'bestseller' titles I've laboured through over the last 12 months.
And don't be fooled by the strapline. This is no misery memoir. An absorbing, well-crafted narrative tears at your heart but in the author's voice one discerns a Blitz-esque valour which does not court pity. Instead she affirms the indomitable human spirit can traverse Hell and still come through unscathed, whole, unfettered by any stigma of being 'damaged'. That anyone could emerge from the violent emotional tourniquet which passed for her childhood and still know how to smile is astounding and humbling in equal measure.
James casts an inspirational, gladiatorial figure who when cruelly beaten to the ground simply keeps on getting up. There is fire in her heart, a desire for life and dignity. The direct power of her writing forges a connection with the reader who becomes emboldened to feel that no test is beyond endurance.
One is drawn breathlessly through 320 pages of spellbinding recollection and knife-edge drama tenser than your last good thriller. James grabs your attention and doesn't let go. Her style is accessible, candid, unaffected, charmingly engaging. She offers a sharp eye for detail, subtle incisive wit and an adroit sophistication one would not expect from someone denied any tangible education. Her ability to transport you intimately into the mind of her inner child is deeply moving. You will share tears of distress, random flourishes of lightness in the stormy night, the gathering hope for a better life.
If the high purpose of literature is to enhance our understanding of the human condition, then James is truly triumphant. I walk away shaken, drenched in empathy. The hammer-blow central message about the sanctity of childhood from this mother of six will not be easily forgotten. Hopefully it will change lives.
"Mummy Knew" is a brilliant book. A rare read which gripped me from first to last page. A new benchmark nonpareil for the genre. If there is one book you read this year, make it this one. I can only wait patiently for more offerings from this talented new rising star.