The name Mara Wilson may not ring many bells for you, and that's part of the problem. A wonderful actress and more recently a very talented writer and storyteller, Wilson is better known as 'the girl from Matilda', 'the kid in Miracle on 34th Street' or the youngest girl in Mrs Doubtfire. It says something about the worth that we attach to child actors when we tend to forget what they're called - they are household faces not household names. And jesus - what a disservice that all does to Mara Wilson.
Where Am I Now? is really a series of essays rather than an autobiography as such, and they are glorious essays. Yes, you have everything that you'd expect - snippets of conversations with Robin Williams, behind the scenes secrets from the filming of Matilda and true and horrific tales of how Hollywood mistreats and misjudges young people, but it's in the more personal, universal stories that Wilson's skill as a storyteller come across. Cutting through the script read-throughs and red-carpet mishaps, we learn of how Wilson's mother died of cancer during her formative years. As Wilson tells us of how she lost her mother and the Tooth Fairy at the same time, the utter, gripping, private pain of it is laid bare but the way that she paints it all - sparsely and carefully - means that it's the more universal loss of innocence that lingers. Wilson has an obviously wide array of star-studded stories to call upon, and she could have given us a nice whirl through those without going any further, but with Where Am I Now?, we get true honesty.
Moving forward, Wilson applies the same level of honesty to the anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that she deals with. She tells of a childhood dream where she's confronted by unnerving figures moving closer and how she wakes describing them as 'her fears'. Anybody who has ever dealt with anything similar will recognise and value the clarity given by a child's voice. Through her writing, we're able to understand her situation, but importantly, it allows us to reassess some of our own experiences that might fit into a similar pattern.
As you can tell, I'm a fan of this book. I bought it for the same reason that so many will - because we grew up with those films and because I was intrigued. Having read Wilson's blog, I knew that I wasn't about to read some ghost-written cash cow of a book, but I was still wonderfully surprised. Living with depression, I've actually been going through a period of book blindness, and this is the first book that I've read in more than a year. It was a joy - partly because for the first time in ages, I was able to pick up a book and not feel daunted, and not feel like a failure when I put it down again - in no small part because Wilson's writing is so warm. But perhaps most importantly to me, Wilson talks of reading and writing as a child, and it reminded me of my own relationship with books, where they weren't work to be done or obstacles to overcome - when they were friends to escape with.
If you're looking for an insight of what it's like to grow up famous and part of the film industry, you should read this book - even in that narrow sense, it's great value. However, there are more treasures here. Mara Wilson writes with sometimes painful honesty on what it's like to deal with anxiety, to deal with loss and to deal with that tricky affliction that comes to us all - growing up. In Where Am I Now?, Wilson deals with all of these themes and more with great humour and humility. I for one hope that this is just the beginning, I'd very happily stand in line for a copy of What Mara did next.