Wasted by Elspeth Muir

Two things to get off my chest about Elspeth Muir’s memoir, Wasted

  1. This is an extremely important book that examines the impact of alcohol on a family and, in doing so, highlights the fact that drinking to excess is normalised in Australian culture.
  2. In my opinion, this book was robbed – it really should have made the 2017 Stella Prize shortlist.

In 2009, Muir’s 21-year-old brother, Alexander, finished his last university exam, celebrated with friends, and then jumped 30 metres from the Story Bridge into the Brisbane River below. His body was found three days later, with a blood-alcohol reading of 0.25. This tragic event provides a starting point for Muir to explore her grief; her own drinking habits; and Australia’s drinking culture.

There’s a practicality to Wasted. A blend of memoir and journalism, Muir shifts between her incredibly honest account of grieving for Alexander and the problem with a ‘socially acceptable’ drug. Of alcohol, she writes –

“It is a germ killer and a poison; an unremarkable but integral addition to meals and a beverage reserved to mark special events; able to enhance social occasions and destroy them; best consumed in moderation, but symbolic of excess. The ability of a person to consume it regularly in great quantities is both the sign of a strong constitution and a symptom of illness… Alcohol’s effects are lauded in sports people, politicians and other high-profile members of society, who are often forgiven for their indiscretions while under the influence, but are considered problematic in minority groups, young people and women, who are blamed for mismanagement.”

There’s always a danger with memoirs that they will read as self-indulgent or judgemental. In describing the trauma that Muir and her family experienced, Wasted could have gone in that direction. But no. Muir writes beautifully and openly, and because her thoughts often buck convention (remember, we all grieve in our own way), the result is startling –

“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.”

“I laughed in shock and afterwards, in my apartment, I cried. It was functional crying, like turning on windscreen wipers or a sprinkler…. I wasn’t sure if I was crying because I had to or because I was acting, trying to emulate normal sadness.”

The real power in Wasted comes from Muir’s examination of her own relationship with alcohol. Her candid, direct tone and the quick jump from pouring a glass of wine after a long day at work to blackouts and drowning in the Brisbane River is chilling. And that’s what makes this book brutal – her honesty about her own complicity in the culture that led to Alexander’s death.

“I was a greedy, grasping drunk. I did what I wanted and took what I wanted, and in the aftermath I blamed it on alcohol.”

And through all of this, you can’t help but thrill at Muir’s beautifully written words.

“When we got out of the car, Mim hugged us the same way Mum and all six of her sisters hug, as if they’re koalas and you’re a branch.”

4.5/5 This is an important book and I hope everyone reads it (you can read an extract here and you can listen to this).

Muir and her other brother, Patrick, spend time pinning ‘Missing’ posters for Alexander. They stop at a convenience store and buy tape and corn chips and, although both are feeling absolute despair, they joke in a way only siblings can.

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17 responses

  1. Great write-up Kate. I’ve heard Muir interviewed and it sounded like a good book.

    As for the Stella shortlist, I can’t really comment but it’s interesting that the ratio of non-fiction to fiction in the longlist is very different in the shortlist.

    • Thanks Sue. I was so impressed with Muir’s writing.

      I had the same thoughts about the longlist and shortlist – an uneven longlist, heavily weighted toward non-fiction, and now an even shortlist! I still have a couple to go on the shortlist but should get through them all before the announcement!

  2. Don’t you think it interesting how issues and memoir are increasingly being mixed these days. I wonder if it’s a consequence of the rise in blogging and a concentration on personal perspective.

    • Interestingly, I’m reading a book at the moment (The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard) which touches on the same subject – Voumard suggests that there’s an increase in ‘long-form journalism’, where the blend of personal stories and broader information and used together. I actually quite like it – I retain information more when it’s anchored to something personal and individual.

    • Agree – a national conversation seems a long way off however I have been somewhat heartened by the changing language around alcohol-fueled violence. The media in Aus has made a concerted effort to no longer use ‘king hit’ and instead say ‘coward’s punch’. These kind of things are small, but hopefully incremental.

  3. I keep coming across books that depict incredible levels of drinking as normal for young women, and I think whoa! Has this become the new norm? My mother’s generation only drank socially and *never* got drunk, my generation discovered cask wine but still looked down on women who got drunk, and now (so I’m told) women go out socialising for the purpose of getting drunk.
    So maybe this book is needed, but I don’t want to read it.

    • I agree – times have changed dramatically. I understand why many won’t want to read this book but I really hope that people under the age of 25 do read it. They might look at their ‘partying’ and after-work drinking from a slightly different perspective.

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  5. I find this subject fascinating. It amazes me how, if I just look around me, I see signs of over-consumption everywhere. And it’s viewed as normal, rather than problematic.

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