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Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction: Five Great Autobiographical Novels

All fiction is autobiographical to some extent, if only because the world of a novel must reflect the world as the novelist sees it, albeit in a distorted way. But at the same time, we know that the fiction writer is free to invent whatever people and worlds serve her story best. We don’t ask what is invention and what is fact, as long as it all feels truthful.

So when a novelist decides to tell the story of her own real life, she faces some very serious challenges. What if her life is totally implausible? Or just boring? Very often, these challenges result in a novel that is not only truthful, but even more original and imaginative than the same novelist’s strictly made-up stories.

Here are five books that cross the border between fiction and memoir, life and art. Some of them cross it and then cross it back again, with a detour via somewhere else altogether. Every one of them feels true.


Nobel laureate Coetzee has written three volumes of autobiographical fiction: Boyhood, Youth and Summertime recount his childhood, early twenties and early thirties respectively. In each he dissects his own character with the same unrelenting clear-sightedness he has turned upon so many fictional creations.

Childhood is a time generally treated with reverence, so Coetzee’s approach is especially unnerving in Boyhood. He captures truths about childhood you’ve chosen to forget: the humiliation of innocence, the shame of seeing your parents in ways they wouldn’t want you to, the spite and rage and violent desire.

Coetzee grew up in South Africa. The question of race both hovers at the edge and festers at the heart of Boyhood. Amongst other things it is a faithful portrait of how attitudes considered unthinkable in other times and places can be accepted by a child as just one more horrible puzzle in a world crammed full of them.

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A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin was a writer of genius, but she produced comparatively little finished work—because she was busy with a rich, varied and difficult life. After a childhood in remote mining camps and a glamorous adolescence in South America, she began a battle with alcoholism which outlasted three marriages and dozens of jobs. Her witty, playful stories invite us to share all this. She’ll make you feel at home in a laundromat, a Catholic boarding school, an illegal abortion clinic, Mexico City, rehab, other people’s houses and prison. Her voice is unfailingly warm and kind, but there’s a lot of pain and fear and anguish to confront.

Until recently, her work has only been known to a small circle of readers. A Manual For Cleaning Women is a collection of her stories published in 2015, with the aim of bringing Berlin’s work to a wider audience. Lydia Davis provides an introduction, in which she declares her ‘faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later.’

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Speak, memory : an autobiography

Nabokov is best known, of course, for Lolita, a novel as sordid as it is brilliant, and certainly not an autobiography—if it were, Nabokov would have written the second volume in prison. His life, however, was more than interesting enough to write about.

He was born into the Russian nobility, and his family was forced to flee to Germany when the Russian Revolution broke out. His father was fatally shot in Berlin while protecting the target of an attempted assassination, and when the Nazis came to power, Nabokov fled to America with his Russian-Jewish wife, Vera.

Speak, Memory tells this story in prose both bejewelled and meditative. Its subject is less the author’s life than the question of what a life is—what it’s made of and where it goes once it’s been lived.

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

‘Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.’

Jeanette and her mother don’t have much to wrestle over at first. Jeanette is a devout member of her mother’s evangelical church. She accepts her mother’s determination that when she grows up she will be a missionary, and convert the Heathen. How does her mother know? ‘I had you from God.’

So when Jeanette falls head-over-heels in love with another girl, it doesn’t occur to her that there will be any problem. But her mother sees it differently…

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is both an autobiography and a novel, and it’s many other things besides. It’s a loving portrait of a mother whom the word ‘difficult’ doesn’t even begin to describe. It’s a collection of unique and moving fairy tales. And it is a precious account of life in a northern England that has largely vanished.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

No list of autobiographical novels would be complete without this, James Joyce’s first and most accessible novel. Its language mimics the growth of young Stephen Dedalus’s consciousness, beginning in the vocabulary of nursery rhymes—‘Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road’—and ending in Stephen’s perorating declaration that his vocation is ‘to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’

Along the way it offers unforgettably real glimpses of childhood and youth. The traumas of boarding school and of Catholic guilt, Stephen’s adolescent discovery of sex and his parallel discovery of the intoxications of language, are all rendered in the literary equivalent of hi-definition. 

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.