Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

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Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A memoir of the writer and former book reviewer, reflecting on approaching death as well as random thoughts, episodes, likes and dislikes from her ninety years.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 192 Date: January 2008
Publisher: Granta
ISBN: 978-1847080691

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Diana Athill wrote this book at the age of ninety. Basically it reads like a way of getting things off her chest before she passes on, a kind of goodbye testimony to the world. The dominant theme is imminent death. She reflects on how her elderly parents and brother faced the end, and wonders if it will be as easy for her as it was for them. Most of the women on both sides of her family, she notes, lived into their nineties without the indignity of ending their days in a home for the aged. She looks at 'advanced old age', without the support of religion to console her, asking what her feelings are about that, and how she has to turn for enlightenment to those she knew who have gone before her.

Having been through a major bereavement myself just under a year ago, I found some of what she has to say on the subject quite relevant, albeit in a detached way. But she seems rather remote from the issues she discusses, almost as if she is describing someone else's feelings instead of her own. It all comes across as rather impersonal.

Rather more interesting, perhaps – especially to those who write and read on this very website – are the pages on her life as a reviewer for the Literary Review. As she says, it may not go far towards paying the household bills, but it is enjoyable as it makes you open your mind towards the book, and points you towards other books you may not have read. She also mentions that, in common with other people of her age (or so she says) that she has rather gone off novels.

These random jotting on the highways and byways of literature are probably the most interesting pages of a not madly interesting book. She starts off by telling us of her regrets at never having owned a pug dog, with some sentimental thoughts about the relationship between humans and dogs (OK, I'm a cat softie myself, though up to a point I can see where she is coming from), and about ordering a tree fern through the post, which she now realises she will never see grow to maturity. All this is the sort of thing one might chat or write about at great length in a letter to a close friend or family member. But in cold hard print, one can be excused for the basic reaction of So what?

There are also pages about affairs with married men, once again all recounted in an oddly distant manner. Frankly I rather lost interest after a while and found myself skimming these bits.

It would be uncharitable to deny that the book has its good points, but unfortunately you have to wade through the so-so stuff to reach them. There are excerpts from four glowing reviews from other journals (including the Literary Review, perhaps unsurprisingly), so don't take my word for it. She writes with shameless honesty, as one of them says, and I wouldn't disagree with that. But I was rather relieved to reach the last page.

Another title you may find of interest is I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being A Woman by Nora Ephron.

Our thanks to Granta for sending a copy to Bookbag.

Booklists.jpg Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.

Booklists.jpg Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill is in the Independent Booksellers' Prize 2009.

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Buy Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill at


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