Mum Turns Roman Matron; Julie Myerson's Controversial Book Mixes Limp Historical Research with Her Own Grimly Fascinating Confessions

Article excerpt

Byline: BOOK OF THE WEEK CLAIRE HARMAN

THE LOST CHILD: A TRUE STORY by Julie Myerson (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]14.99))

YOU have to admire Julie Myerson's professionalism.

There she is, burdened with some truly awful material, trying to make sense of it, trying to honour her side of the bargain. If the telling is a bit rough, if her voice cracks every now and then and a tear wells up, that is forgivable. It's a mark of almost superhuman doggedness that she managed to get some of this down on paper at all.

And that's just the "core" story of The Lost Child, the history of an early 19thcentury amateur watercolourist, Mary Yelloly, possibly the most content-less life ever attempted by a biographer.

Myerson's agent saw an album of domestic scenes painted by the girl, thought the novelist (who had a notable success with her other non-fiction, Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House) should research the life, and signed her up.

But a couple of years on, though she had met some jolly nice great-greatgreat nieces and mooched around a Suffolk churchyard in the damp, Myerson had discovered little more about Mary Yelloly than that she owned a pair of dangly earrings, rode in a yellow coach and that one of her relations had a room 10ft square. Riveting stuff.

Meanwhile, the author's own life was producing far more distracting and urgent copy. Myerson and her husband had just ejected Jake, their eldest child, from the family home in a desperate response to his increasingly aggressive skunk-fuelled behaviour. Their formerly delightful child ("our boy", as she calls him all through this book) started to skip school, steal from his parents, shoplift, lie and cause violent scenes.

They knew he had dabbled in cannabis, but like many parents felt that was a soft problem that would play itself out.

But when it became clear that he was addicted to skunk, and was possibly endangering his younger brother by example and encouragement, the parents panicked and have been basically at war with their child ever since, chucking him out, taking him back, offering and withholding privileges, trying to strike deals, trying to get him professional help.

It sounds like a nightmare, and one can fully understand why Julie Myerson would have been too distraught to do much with the book on Mary Yelloly -- even had that project been worthwhile.

As it was, The Lost Child morphed into an "interwoven" narrative, incorporating her own parenting miseries and childhood memories, frankly confessional, into the limp biographical quest.

The results have been more dramatic than Myerson could ever have imagined.

Two months before the planned publication, and long before the book was available to read, articles have begun to appear under headlines such as "Author Sells Son's Story", pillorying Myerson for betraying her child's trust, for betraying motherhood itself. …