Kristina Olsson is a multi-award winning author of fiction and non-fiction. At Avid Reader earlier this month, she gave a beautiful speech to launch Wasted: A Story of Alcohol, Grief and a Death in Brisbane, the powerful new memoir by Elspeth Muir. Kristina kindly allowed us to publish it here.
This is a book that should never have to have been written.
No sister should ever have to write this book.
Because the event at the heart of this book should never have happened. It took part of that sister away, robbed her of part of that role. Of being Alexander’s sister.
It robbed a family of a son, of its wholeness. It robbed a community of a beautiful boy.
Most of you here tonight are aware of the tragedy this book traces. Unlike other book launches I’ve done, I don’t have to tell you what it’s about. It’s about loss, about alcohol, about mystery and uncertainty; it’s about forgiveness.
It is nearly seven years since Alexander died, seven years in which you’re supposed to grow a new skin, become a new person.
This is a book that should never have to have been written. But it is a book that had to be written. It is full of compassion and a shining intelligence. It is heartbreaking and funny and full of breathtaking insight.
I do not want to speak for anyone here, but my own experience of grief is that part of you is forever the person you were when grief first snuck into your life.
I suspect there is a part of all of you that is still seven years younger than you are now. Still the person who lost Alexander.
Still the person overcome not just with his loss, but the way he was lost.
I imagine it’s the person you try to turn from, trying to do the thing all the shrinks suggest you do: move on.
Knowing this, I can only wonder at the gut-wrenching courage it took a sister to go back to those years, to live once again in that fragile skin, to rip open her heart and try to understand it. All over again. By writing it.
I don’t want to overplay this, but writing, when it is approached seriously, with the greatest courage and humility, strips us bare. It is hard labour.
It is like lighting a fuse beneath your skin and following it, knowing it will ignite, and that when it does, the pain will be excruciating.
When you’re writing with courage and humility, you have to face things in yourself and in others that ordinary life rarely demands.
Elspeth knew that when she began this book. Or, perhaps, she intuited it. I don’t know. You can never truly know the depths of the effort and the courage of this kind of endeavour until you have lived it. Over years sometimes.
But there are times—and this is one of them—when the pay-off is equal to the cost. Because when that fuse ignites it also illuminates us, leaving us bigger, better, more courageous, more compassionate.
It also leaves us more generous. Because a book like this, a book that should never have had to be written, actually needed to be written. Among so many other things, the writing of this book was an act of great generosity.
In the depth of its honesty, its patience, its love, it is a gift.
Not just to Elspeth’s family and her friends, to everyone who loved Alexander.
But to all of us.
What she gives us is no-nonsense, stripped down, coruscating honesty. No guilt trips. No finger pointing. No judgment. This is, of course, the key.
When I say it’s a gift to all of us, you’ll think I’m talking about the book’s portrait of Australia’s drinking culture.
And yes, she gives us a terrifyingly recognisable picture of the way we deal with alcohol in this country, the celebration of it, the ordinariness of it, the acceptance of its excesses, the expectation of its excesses.
She traces it at a national and cultural level, and then loops back to examine it microscopically, at an individual level. Her brother’s, her friends’, her own.
But what she also does is this: she makes us look around us, at our circles of friends and family, at ourselves, in such a way that we see without resentment.
We see beyond the clichés. Beyond the well-worn responses we usually have to drinking, to the damage it does, the paper-thin wall we put up around the room that we and alcohol dance in.
She does that.
But when I talk about a gift, I’m talking about something a bit more fragile, a bit more personal, bigger.
What she gives us is no-nonsense, stripped-down, coruscating honesty.
No guilt trips. No finger pointing. No judgment.
This is, of course, the key. Because she does not train the spotlight only on the circumstances that took her brother from her and from her family, the conditions that made it possible, and on the culture that made it possible.
She trains it on herself. And not in self-pity and hand-wringing, but with curiosity, trepidation, need. And fearlessness.
In this way it is the best kind of memoir. We can’t interrogate and illuminate sorrow, and loss, the mystery contained in others, without interrogating and illuminating ourselves.
Without fierce, relentless courage. Without the pain of honesty.
Real honesty. Sometimes I think it is the bravest word in our vocabulary.
Honest questions. That honesty and lack of judgment allows her to go to deep, dark places, at a personal and a political level. I don’t meant party political; I mean the politics of drinking in our society.
If we were all as honest as Elspeth, we’d all talk like this. Write like this.
We’d all be asking the questions she’s asking. Not just of governments and businesses and commercial interests.
But what sets this book apart, I think, apart from its apparently effortless and beautiful writing, and all the things I’ve already said is that, despite the microscope she trains on us, the reader feels no resentment.
We don’t feel skewered, blamed, stupid. We feel enlarged. And thoughtful. And grateful.
I’ll make a confession here. When I came to this book I was worried. I’ve launched a few books this year, read many, and I was concerned I might be jaded, that my reading eye might be weary and not awake to what it should see.
Perhaps I was frightened of what I MIGHT see.
But from the beginning I was in its thrall. Completely inside it, compelled by all the qualities I’ve already mentioned, by the beauty and heart of the storytelling. I didn’t want to put it down.
And there was nothing to be frightened of. Things to be saddened by, but equally to be uplifted by.
This is a book that should never have to have been written.
But it is a book that had to be written.
It is full of compassion and a shining intelligence. It is heartbreaking and funny and full of breathtaking insight.
And to all of you who loved Alexander, the book honours him. And his family.
Without stepping away from the enormity of his loss, without any pretence at understanding it.
I hope to see it up there winning prizes, I hope to see it widely read and recognised. It is a shining achievement.