‘Darling Baby Mine’ by John de St Jorre (Quartet Books Limited – 2016) – a book review e-mail exchange between reader and author.
There can be no doubting the interest of this story for the reader – a son’s successful search for his long-lost mother. I was also interested by the evolution of John’s life during the search – M16 spy, war correspondent and now book (and in this case memoir) writer. Quite a life.
In spite of my interest, however, I found the book an awkward read. By awkward, here, I mean something like hard to settle to.The ‘documentary drama’ style of story telling sits uncomfortably, for me at least, with a memoir’s claims of truth (fulness), albeit with latitude. Readers, at home with ‘plausible reconstruction’, however, will have no such concerns.
I would also recommend this book to readers interested in the actual and the potential flux of their own families (that is, all of us). It provides interesting and useful insights into which ‘lost’ relatives, we should try to find (as well as which present relatives, we should do well to try to ‘loose’).
Conflict of interest? the Author is a long-term friend, was kind enough to give me a copy of his book and suggested I write a review for Amazon. The latter, however, is not intended to promote the book as such; but to witness to the truth(fulness) of my own reading experience, for the benefit of others. However, two birds with one stone was my original thought.
I think the last paragraph should be removed while the reference to our friendship, which is important, can be dealt in the first paragraph like this:
“There can be no doubting the interest of this story for the reader–a son’s successful search for his long-lost mother. I was also interested in the evolution of John’s life during the search. (Full disclosure: We are long-standing friends.) He was successively an MI6 spy, war correspondent, and now book–in this case memoir–writer. Quite a life.” 
Your second paragraph raises concerns because it lacks clarity and facts to back up your argument that the book is “an awkward read” on account of its “documentary drama style of story telling.” Your implication is that the way it is told harms the memoir’s “claims of truth (fullness), albeit with latitude.” 
Three points. First, are you saying that the narrative is difficult to get through, the pages do not turn easily because of its documentary style? If not, I think it would be fair to say that, whatever your misgivings about its style, the book is a smooth read or something like it. 
Second, will readers understand what a “documentary drama style” is? I am not sure I do and feel, if you use this term, you have to explain it, its advantages and its pitfalls, as the Spectator reviewer did so clearly in his long opening paragraph. 
Third, when you say you are concerned about this style sitting “uncomfortably” with the truth, “albeit with latitude,” there is no substance or evidence provided. It’s all very vague. Are you saying that the central facts of the story are untruthful? That the emotions expressed are false? That your confidence in the authenticity of the story is undermined by the style in which it is written? And what kind of–and how much–“latitude” are you talking 
For background, I spent more than a decade, writing my story without dialogue–other my notes taken during the search–or any of the fictional techniques like holding information back and dripping it slowly through the narrative. Every time I showed the manuscript to a professional writer, editor, publisher or agent, they all said it was flat and didn’t work. I was encouraged to follow many other memoirists, including the modern father of them all, Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), and adopt a more imaginative route.
Background noted. However, in my book, so to speak, imagination corresponds to fiction. I will attempt to relate the distinction between fiction and non-fiction to my experience of an ‘awkward read’ – see also above
However, the golden rule of memoir writing remains the same, whatever technique is used. The story must adhere firmly to its core truths, which I am sure mine does, and that applies both to the structure and building blocks of the narrative as well as my feelings about the various characters in the story and my own emotional response to them.
Points noted. I will attempt to address the notion of ‘core truths’ (and its contrasts) with the notion of adherence – as expressed by the narrative and your emotional response thereto.
Finally, in the third paragraph, you have a typo: “lose,” not “loose.” I would cut the phrase in parentheses because it has nothing to do with the book; it is a personal preference, admirable no doubt, but out of context.
Typo noted. Parenthesis will be sustained and further justified.
When you return to your critique, I think it would be helpful to decide where you draw the line between my style of memoir writing, using some fictional techniques, and the more straightforward, reportorial style eschewing them?
I will try; but see points made earlier.
How do you measure the truthfulness of a memoir? What constitutes a violation of that truth? Are there specific elements of my story that you consider false and misleading because of the style in which it is written? Let’s have facts to support any line of argument.
I am not sure that a reader’s experience is best thought of as facts. However, these are good points, which I shall try to address. Your answers to the same question would also be of some interest. Maybe these will be prompted by our further exchanges……
I think the crux of the matter is where does one draw the line between truth and fabrication in writing a memoir? Concrete examples will help clarify the matter. For instance, does Frank McCourt’s best-selling memoir, Angela’s Ashes, overstep the line when he recounts how he was conceived up against a wall of a pub in Brooklyn, when the basic facts of his dramatic story are proven to be accurate? James Frey’s initial best-selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was proved to be full of blatant falsehoods concerning main parts of his story. As a result the book was disgraced and pulped.
I defer to you on these examples. I would have to read these two books to give a sensible response. Truth and fabrication, however, seem to me poorer contrasts than fiction and non-fiction for addressing these issues.
Many memoirs that I have read–I have a whole shelf of them–invent dialogue, re-create scenes and incidents that require fictional techniques to make them work, and manipulate the placing of information to lead the reader along instead of laying it out immediately in the way that a journalist or a historian would.
A good example is my opening scene with my father dropping my brother and me off at the convent school in 1943. When I wrote that up in earlier drafts, it took a couple of sentences opening a long chapter on our life in the school where we were for four and a half years. Now, in the actual book, it is two and a half pages long in a dramatized form. However, I would contend that no fundamental truth has been violated by that approach, and that the characterization of all the people in it–my father, my brother, the nun who met us, and me–are accurate, as are a most of the physical details supplied by my brother’s memory and my own. The dialogue, of course, is made up.
This raises a number of issues, many of which have been identified earlier. My response will draw on the fiction/non-fiction distinction and the implications for the reader’s experience and the carry-forward thereof.
 Agreed. However, the last paragraph was intended to disassociate myself from the obviously book-promoting of many of the Amazon reader reviews. No longer required, as no longer a review for Amazon consumption. So, stet.
 Remember my aim is to witness to the truth (with latitude) of my reader’s experience. The way the story is told makes it difficult for me to assign a threshold for its truth (fullness), albeit with latitude. This makes for my claim of it being an ‘awkward read’. ‘Awkward’ here refers to my need to toggle between simply accepting the story and noting what may be simply a literary device. An example would be the re-visiting of the catholic school, where John was a boarder.
 The book was not a smooth read for me. The continued need to readjust my threshold for truth (fullness) and working out the associated implications interrupted the flow of the story to the latter’s (and my) disadvantage. See also above. The use of direct speech in Chapter 5 is a good example of what I mean here. Last, I don’t read books for a ‘smooth read’. I read books to open my mind to the world and to support my experience thereof. I am not in any way claiming that others may not find the book a smooth read. Indeed, I am sure that many of them do and that this is also the author’s intent for which, for example, direct speech is a means. I am merely exercising my right to dissent.
 What I mean by ‘documentary style’ is the pretence of presence in its absence. The direct speech, cited above in Chapter 5, is a good example. Its disadvantages in a memoir is that it makes for an awkward read (see above). I see no advantages, other than conniving at a smooth read for readers seeking a smooth read (among which I do not count myself).
 These are all difficult points; but I will try to address them by calling on the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. I find this distinction both useful and essential. The writing style hampers my making of this distinction.