Wasted by Elspeth Muir
In 2009, Elspeth Muir’s youngest brother, Alexander, went out drinking with friends. That same night, he climbed over the railing of the Story Bridge and jumped 30 metres into the Brisbane River below. His body was pulled out of the water three days later. This catastrophic event is the focal point of Muir’s memoir, in which she also talks openly about Australia’s drinking culture and her own complicity with it.
Muir slips back and forth in time as she attempts to make sense of Alexander’s death, to find someone or something to blame. Her narrative is punctuated by her explorations of the public discourse surrounding alcohol in Australia. Muir is never preachy or judgemental in these sections, but she is always direct and this directness is one of the things that makes her writing so remarkable. She also gifts readers gorgeously evocative passages which convey a depth of emotion but avoid straying into sentimentality. Her descriptions of Brisbane – that ‘heavy tropical air that turns southerners mad with despair’ – made me homesick. Her short account of what happens to a corpse in a body of water was gruesome yet brimming with undeniable tenderness: ‘The soles of the feet and the palms wrinkle like when you’re in a bath too long, only much worse.’
To write honestly about trauma is no easy feat, but Muir conveys her grief and its inherent elusiveness without pandering to conventional expectations. At one point she writes: ‘I wasn’t sure if I was crying because I had to or because I was acting, trying to emulate normal sadness.’ Later in the narrative, she reflects on how she feels emotionally manipulated by other people, inspiring both rage and recognition. Like all of us, Muir has multiple desires that simultaneously exist in stark contrast to each other: she wants to be comforted; she doesn’t want to be comforted. Even while conflicted, Muir’s desires are relatable and none more so than her need to give Alexander’s death a narrative arc. Wasted is a haunting read.