Half a Life – Darin Strauss

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?


Filed under Beautiful Books Publishing, Books of 2011, Darin Strauss, Non Fiction, Review

5 responses to “Half a Life – Darin Strauss

  1. I share the same issues with memoir that you do. I wonder about a genre that relies on the author having done something or experience something worthy of a book only to end up populated by authors with very little real claim to fame. Winston Churchill did enough to warrant a memoir. Dame Maggie Smith has done enough to warrant a memoir. Very few people under the age of 60 have really done enough to justify a memoir, yet so many of them are writing one.

    How can one accurately determine how important life events are when one hasn’t lived an entire life yet?

    • I don’t know if its about an entire life lived, as I do think some people go through horrendous things in a year others won’t experience in a lifetime and in some cases these things can make fantastic reading for anyone else who goes through similar. I mean my own Dad accidentally killed someone on his motor bike back in the 80’s, maybe I should have brought that up in the post actually, and a book like this could have done him wonders.

      Its the misery memoirs and stories of childhood abuse that get me, do we really want to read about that? Mind you having said that I love reading murder but I dont want to witness it, its a tricky one.

      This is a brilliant book though by the way.

  2. Therese

    By the way, you have a cool blog and I have not commented before, but every once in awhile I hit upon a subject I can speak to.
    There’s another factor to consider in the memoir genre: quality of writing. While I certainly understand and share your view of published memoirs that clearly are more about the author’s peronal journey, don’t discount those that compare to the best of any genre, misery or not. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, National Book Award winner (thank goodness), may not be in the category of misery memoir, but the writing is so effortlessly exquisite that you will find yourself at the end of the book wondering why it can’t go on forever. Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ is a classic for a reason. Nobody does metaphor like Mr. Bragg. Finally, if you’re looking for a book that blows the myth of the misery memoir and bad writing out of the water, try Robert Goolrick’s, The End of the World As We Know It. Yes, I’m American, so these are the ones I know. I love your reviews and I know you have a gazillion books to read, but I’d sure like to know what you think of these.

    • Thanks Therese, its always lovely when I hear from people who are new to Savidge Reads or have been lurking a while.

      I don’t disagree with memoirs at all its the motive of money behind some of them that bother me. I also wonder how genuine some of them are… after all look what happened with the whole James Frey thing.

      I have heard lots of good things about the Patti Smith, and will look into your other recommendations further.

      • Therese

        yeah, the James Frey thing. Whew! I suspect that we would exactly agree on almost any memoir you might read. And what you said about your dad is one of the reasons they should be/must be written. I neglected to add that it’s not just that they should be well written, but that there be aome new found wisdom added to the collective consciousness. That would be the only reason to read about childhood abuse (well, and that it could help someone).
        Ooooh, I see I tempted you with the Just Kids. It would be worth putting it closer to the top of your TBR file. She’s not just a musician. Ok, I’ll stop.

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