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Lifescapes by Ann Wroe review – a master biographer chases the essence of life - - Welcome Press "Enter" to skip to content

Lifescapes by Ann Wroe review – a master biographer chases the essence of life

The Economist’s obituarist sheds light on her belief in the sublime – and her intense, sometimes baffling inner life – in this beautiful and brave book

For the non-religious reader, a search for the soul might seem quaint or deluded. The word “soul” needs, for most of us, to be approached with caution. But you do not have to be, as Ann Wroe is, a Catholic or a follower of any organised religion to be thankful for this brave, unfashionable and out of the ordinary book, which looks above and beyond pedestrian woes and has, as its starting point, a belief in the existence of the soul. Wroe is a superb biographer and a fine poet and recruits Shelley, a non-believer (whose life she has written), to help in her endeavour. He regarded it as ridiculous to reason that “that astonishing thing” – life – was, as she puts it, “merely physiological and mechanical”.

Wroe is admirably unflustered in tackling, early on, the physicist Steven Weinberg to remind us that, in spite of an infuriated disdain for those with religious belief, he arrived at a point where, although he came close, he could not explain creation. For almost two decades, Wroe has been the Economist’s obituarist and she uses this experience, too, to illuminate her quest. She concludes that the public reputation of a person seldom reveals their truest self and is always on the lookout for the telling details that give them away. She is even able to catch the essence of her friends in this manner, noting that one of them is “best evoked by a tennis racket thrown on an unmade bed” (intriguing that material things should contribute to the soul searching). She then goes on to qualify what she has discovered about obituaries by admitting to the “presumption” of trying to catch a life at all.

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