2017 Stella Prize, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, Elspeth Muir, Literary prizes, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane’ by Elspeth Muir


Non-fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 217 pages; 2016.

Billed as an investigation into Australia’s drinking culture, Elspeth Muir’s Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane makes for uncomfortable reading.

Muir looks at the way alcohol abuse defines the lives of so many young Australians and asks why it is socially acceptable to get wasted on a regular basis. She uses the death of her own brother, 21-year-old Alexander Muir, who drowned in the Brisbane River after a night of sustained drinking, as a framing device.

In late 2009, Alexander had been out celebrating his last university exam. He kept drinking long after his friends had gone home. The next morning police found his shirt, thongs (flip-flops), phone and wallet on the Story Bridge; his body was discovered in the water a few days later. The coroner’s report said his blood alcohol reading was 0.238 — almost five times the legal limit for drivers.

When the book opens, Muir thrusts us right into the harsh reality of her brother’s funeral:

In the aisle the casket rested on a silver trolley with collapsible legs. Frangipani boughs from the tree outside my parents’ kitchen were wired into a messy funeral wreath. Beneath the lid was my brother’s soggy body — fresh from the refrigerator, pickled in embalming fluids, alcohol and river water. On once fertile plains of flesh, now flushed with chemicals and emptied of organs, dying parasites weakly tapped their tails. Later, corpse eaters would digest his freckled skin and rough hands.

From there, Muir traces her relationship with her brother — the younger of two — and, in turn, his relationship with drink. Alexander often drank to excess and experienced black outs. He would do stupid things and not come home. He would wake up and not know where he was, nor remember how he got there. His escapades became legendary and a sort of badge of honour.

Tellingly, when Muir asked her brother’s friends to share their memories of Alexander for this book, all their anecdotes were about things Alexander had done when drunk. Muir, who does not shy away from revealing her own troubling relationship with binge drinking, is shocked by this:

Like Patrick [Muir’s other brother], it never occurred to me that I had a problem with drinking or that Alexander had a problem with drinking or that anyone I knew had a problem with drinking, despite the many incidents that indicated we did. The way we drank was how everybody we knew drank. It certainly never occurred to me that my drinking might have influenced my brothers’ behaviour.
For the first time since Alexander died my anger had a worthy recipient, and it was uncomfortable. How might it have been different if, instead of laughing at my brother’s drunken exploits, I had been alarmed by them?

A wider problem

While Wasted is very much focused on Alexander’s death and the causes of it, there’s a parallel thread, which looks at Muir’s own relationship with alcohol. This lends the book the air of a memoir, for Muir recounts her teenage years and young adulthood — life in shared households, love affairs, travels abroad — reflecting all the time on the ways in which she abused alcohol. Her revelations are shocking (not least when she recounts how she lost her virginity) and eye-opening, and make for deeply unsettling reading.

Along the way she delves into the wider social context of alcohol abuse and the reasons for it — cheap alcohol, long opening hours, peer pressure, amongst others — and the horrific, often violent, consequences. It’s not particularly comprehensive though (there’s little or no discussion of the long-term impacts on health or domestic violence, for instance), but it does raise important issues about the way binge drinking has been normalised. (Her chapter on Schoolies Week, the tradition of high-school graduates going on celebratory holidays where heavy drinking is encouraged, is particularly alarming.)

This deeply personal book, written in a frank, forthright — and highly readable — manner should be a wake-up call to parents, teachers and policymakers. It’s a compelling and compassionate read, one that deserves a wide audience.

Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane has been longlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize. Please note it is only available as an ebook in the UK and North America. I ordered my paperback edition direct from Australia.

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Update: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017This review will count towards my aim of reading and reviewing 10 books by Australian women as part of this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge.

You can find out more about the challenge via the official website.

This is my first book for #AWW2017.