Diary Of An Ordinary Woman, A Novel by Margaret Forster
Published: Chatto and Windus, April 2003
Length: 403 pages (Hardback edition)
Where Did I Get It?: Purchased second-hand after a recommendation.
Summary (from the book cover):
Margaret Forster presents the ‘edited’ diary of a woman, born 1901, died in 1995. From the age of thirteen, on the eve of the Great War, Millicent King keeps her journal in a series of exercise books. With a touching clearsightedness she vividly records the dramas of everyday life in an ordinary family toughed by war, tragedy, and money troubles in the early decades of the century. She struggles to become a teacher, but wants more out of life. From bohemian literary London to Rome in the twenties, her story moves on to social work and the build-up to another war, in which she drives ambulances through the bombed streets of London. She has proposals of marriage and secret lovers, ambition and optimism. But then her life is turned upside down once more by wartime deaths.
Father said if I want to keep a diary I must begin it on New Years Day.
I started reading this book in July 2012. I finished it mid-February 2013. This probably tells you a lot about my relationship with it.
In any normal circumstance I would never have picked Diary Of An Ordinary Woman up, I only chose to read it as part of my Day Zero challenge to read 5 books recommended to me by other people. To me, the title sounds dull and there is nothing I enjoy less than reading about people. Real people, I mean, with real lives. They’re insufferably boring, even when what’s going on around them might not be.
That, though, is one of the first triumphs of this novel – the realism of the story. It is a novel, it’s made up, a fantasy based on reality – but an awful lot of people think (or thought) that it is a real-life true story. And I can see why.
I have read a few reviews where people have discovered that it is not a real diary and stopped reading, insulted at the deception cleverly laid out through the book. The ‘Introduction’ where Forster claims she is re-editing the diaries of Millicent King is fictional but very convincing and probably my favourite thing about the book. It is the perfect lie – I was taken in, too, until I properly studied the cover of the book and saw the words ‘A Novel’ printed small on the front. Incredibly clever and masterfully pulled off.
The rest of the novel, the diary itself, is one of the most beautiful things I have seen crafted out of imagination, even though I detested reading it. The very reason I detested it was because of its brilliance – it read like the diary of a real person. A real, boring, obnoxious thirteen year old girl who grows up to be a flighty teenager, a stubborn twenty-something, a survivor of wars etc etc. It was incredibly true to the style of a diary and therefore, to me, incredibly boring, awkward and unpleasant to read.
If I were an avid lover of memoirs and biographies and the like, I would probably have loved it. But I’m not, so instead, I forced myself to read two diary entries every time I wanted to pick up another book to read. Just two. Many of them are only half a page long and still felt like a chore.
I didn’t enjoy the book until just over half way through when the Second World War broke out and everything got more exciting. Millicent was just as ‘ordinary’ as before but the world she was in was more interesting and I found myself reading 20 pages a sitting without noticing. Then the war ended and I got bored again.
As a historical novel it was reasonably interesting and it did make me think about how life was during the Great Wars and through the 1980s but it is simply not something I would read by choice.
I can see why it would be someone else’s favourite book of all time and I acknowledge and appreciate the skill of the writing involved. It just wasn’t for me.
My rating: 3/5*