If there is one thing that I cannot really abide then it’s the misery memoir. I have always had a slight issue with people who make rather a lot of money and in some cases a huge amount, from having had horrific childhoods. I can understand it might be a therapy of some kind but there just seems something wrong with the whole idea of it, and the fact people will pay to read someone else’s misery. Therefore when I was sent ‘Half a Life’ by Darin Strauss, which also came with lots of legal documentation to hold it all under secrecy, I was slightly on guard before I started it because this is an autobiographical account of how Dari Strauss killed a girl in his late teens. However this isnt a misery memoir, nor does it seem a memoir for money, its something quite different, incredibly written and makes you look at life a little differently…
‘Half my life ago, I killed a girl.’ Is the hard hitting and instant opening line of Darin Strauss’s autobiographical account of the events that took place back in May 1988 on a road on Long Island. What had started as purely a day out driving his dad’s car with a few of his mates became a day which changed Darin’s life forever. This is no confessional, nor is it some grim detailed account (which as you read on you learn people who knew him wanted at school) of what happened when Celine Zilke’s bike swerved. What you have is an honest account of how an event, which he was found innocent of, changed Darin’s life and not just when it happened but in the weeks, months and decades that followed.
As we follow Darin from the day after he tells us how things changed, initially he had no idea Celine had actually died and so his parents sent him to the cinema which I found quite bizarre, but I guess that they wanted some normality for their son after something so tragic. We follow him as he goes back to school, where we learn Celine was actually one of his classmates, to meeting her parents at the funeral and afterwards during a court battle. The description of his meeting with Celine’s mother and her request he promise to live his life for two from now on was hard to read both because of the emotion in any moment like that but also how Darin makes you live it with him.
Those are of course moments of high drama, yet that isn’t what ‘Half a Life’ is about though moments like that are going to be part and parcel of a book like this. We also follow him in the day to day running of his life. Things such as how it affected new friends or possible dates that he met once he had moved away. How even in interviews he would find himself thinking ‘is this job good enough, what would Celine think?’ and how she has stayed with him, and in a weird way also lived on with him, through events such as his marriage and birth of his sons. It’s this aspect of the book that really struck me.
I have to say reading some of the book I cringed at the pure honesty that was coming out from the pages. Not because it was sanctimonious or horrific, as in fact I think it’s done in a very understated and respectful way, but because he tells us in such details the thoughts that went through his head from the shock, to the denial, to those moments he sought out pity from people – those human thoughts we all have but don’t like to admit to – and so on. You really feel its someone bearing their soul for you and that can be quite uncomfortable at times but this is never reads as pity or a confessional. It reads like a hard hitting tale of a horrific event and the ripples it had on the world and the people after. ‘Half a Life’ is an incredible read in many ways, though not an easy one it certainly makes you think. 9/10
This book was sent by the publisher.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to give a book like this a ten out of ten as whilst I admired the writing and the honesty I did wonder how Celine’s family might feel about this book as we don’t really find out. There is also the small question of if this is fearless writing or is it paid therapy? After finishing the book I am pretty certain its the former, but how do we know? I’d recommend people give this book a try. I can certainly see why it recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography this year. I am tempted to read his fictional work now because, as he mentions himself in this book, they all contain all the feelings and emotions from this event even if they have nothing to do with it. They could therefore be quite remarkable too. What are your thoughts on these sort of novels, which I am now calling ‘realistic jolts’ as I think they differ greatly from those misery memoirs?