Salman Rushdie's 633-page memoir recalls the 13 years he spent living under the fatwah, the death sentence imposed on the writer in February 1989, which accused him of being against Islam, the Prophet and the Quran.

Aside from the vivid, splendidly told account of his childhood and family background, Rushdie's book charts in, fascinating, grimly humourous detail, the shadowy half-life he lived until that fatwah was lifted on March 27, 2002.

Some months after publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was found to have blasphemed all that is sacred to Islam. He was obliged to live constantly on the move, avoiding the death sentence imposed on him by the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Some of those episodes were none too dignified. He had to hide from a farmer behind a kitchen dresser in Wales, and he shut himself into London bathrooms to avoid meeting tradesmen and cleaners.

Indeed, Rushdie's life was so turned on its head by the fatwah, that he changed his name to "Joseph Anton" for purposes of disguise, thus the title of the memoir, which is told in the third person. A literary affectation, his new name tag was a composite of two writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov.

While he has regained his real name now, a certain disorientation continues, as he has been unable to publicly thank other people by their real names. The members of his protection teams, who looked after him tactfully and discreetly through two decades, are of necessity changed in this deeply-compelling story.

At the very end of his acknowledgments list, he thanks the members of the Special Intelligence Services of the United Kingdom, without whom, he writes: " I might not have been in a position to write this - or indeed any other - book."

But some names are not changed, many of them writers, some of whom have since passed on and to whom Rushdie remains indebted for their fearless support. Susan Sontag, Harold Pinter, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, and the former British labour leader Michael Foot are all on the roll of honour, but none are here to read their names in this book. But lots of people who are still very much alive helped Rushdie in various ways, including Bono, who welcomed the writer into his home.

But there are writers too that he definitely does not like, for reasons best gleaned from the book itself. These include Roald Dahl, Arundhati Roy, John le Carré, Germaine Greer, John Berger and Louis de Bernières. The singer Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) is also the recipent of the memoirist's scorn.

Joseph Anton will sell thousands of copies in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but, even if the fatwah had never been imposed, Rushdie's previous books make him a writer with an enviable reputation. In 1993, for instance, his novel Midnight's Children was judged to be the Best of the Booker, the finest novel to have won the Booker prize in its forty-year history.

Paddy Kehoe