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Churchill: Walking with Destiny

by Andrew Roberts
1,152 pages
Viking
Published: October 2018

Andrew Roberts’s biography “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” was published in the fall of 2018 and quickly became a bestseller in both the US and UK. Roberts is an award-winning British author and journalist who has written more than a dozen books including “Napoleon: A Life” (which inspired a BBC tv series), “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War” and “House of Windsor.”

Within weeks of its release this book was hailed as one of the very best single-volume biographies of Winston Churchill ever published. Because this is the first biography of Churchill I’ve read, I am unable to offer an opinion on the matter. What is clear to me, however, is that Roberts’s biography of Churchill is magisterial, impressively thorough and keenly perceptive. It also benefits from the author’s access to personal papers and notes unavailable to previous biographers of Churchill.

Anyone familiar with Winston Churchill’s life will appreciate the difficulty inherent in compressing his remarkably eventful nine decades into a single volume.  But Roberts seems to have accomplished the task with authority, clarity and precision. The book bursts with revealing observations and anecdotes and quickly proves a fruitful (if not effortless) reading experience.

Churchill is easy to lionize and while Roberts’s tome can occasionally feel like an instrument of praise, it is remarkably objective. The narrative critically embraces Churchill’s complexity and never fails to explore his personal faults as well as his professional mistakes. And the author’s attention to the lessons Churchill took from each misstep is as insightful as the description of the sins themselves.

The highlight of the biography for me: the final eighteen pages which are dedicated to the evaluation of Churchill’s life and legacy. Readers who may have overlooked or forgotten any of Churchill’s illustrious accomplishments or conspicuous flaws will find them carefully evaluated and fluently reviewed.

But in my experience, the very best biographies are found at the intersection of penetrating, insightful history and vibrant, captivating narrative. For all the well-deserved praise it has received, “Walking with Destiny” is superb as history but less successful as engaging literature.

Hardcore history enthusiasts might embrace a dry recitation of facts, but readers seeking a colorful exploration of Churchill’s life will find the narrative lamentably stiff.  Anyone who has previously marveled at Churchill’s exceedingly interesting relationship with Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, will discover that much of the intangible magic surrounding their personal and professional connections is missing here.

Roberts does a remarkable job focusing on Churchill’s bubble – explaining what happened and often…but not always…why. But for readers new to Churchill and his surroundings this biography provides little context, almost no foreshadowing and only a fleeting sense of “the big picture.”  As a result, this biography is most valuable to readers who are already familiar with Churchill’s life.

Overall, Andrew Roberts’s biography of Winston Churchill is a literary tale of two cities. Readers seeking a balanced, comprehensive and detailed history of Churchill’s life in a single volume will find this a biographical masterpiece. But anyone seeking to embrace this famously fascinating British politician through a narrative as captivating and colorful as Churchill himself are likely to find it somewhat disappointing.

Overall rating: 3¾ stars