Book Review

Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane by Elspeth Muir

Reading Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane (Text Publishing 2016) by Elspeth Muir took me back thirty-five years to a smell I’ve never forgotten. I was a trainee nurse at the time, doing a Saturday night shift in the operating theatres of a large teaching hospital in Melbourne. It was about 2am and I was prepping a girl around my age for surgery. The smell I remember is the pungent mix of blood and her alcohol-laden breath. Even down the funnel of time these two scents come together in my mind to imply danger. This girl had gone through the windscreen of her car when she crashed it while driving drunk. I still wonder at the scars she carries. I worked for many years on critical care units, so I’ve known these two toxic smells often. I’ve smelt it on the breath of young men who thought they could surf on the tops of moving cars; those who have balcony-hopped three floors up, others who have played chicken on major highways.

Despite this, right throughout my early nursing career I still drank alcohol. I still got drunk. I know I’ve had that chemical smell of danger to my own breath many times. I know I’ve taken risks. But I’m still here all these years later. I was lucky. My life wasn’t wasted too soon.

Muir’s twenty-one-year-old brother’s life was wasted too soon. She tells us so at the end of her book: “What a waste of a life that was.” But in the preceding 200-plus pages of this work of part-memoir, part-journalism, she examines how and why Alexander, with a blood alcohol level of almost 0.24, jumped to his death from Brisbane’s Storey Bridge. Yet like me, despite witnessing, and in Muir’s case living with the consequences of binge drinking first hand, Muir continued to drink to dangerous excess after her brother’s death, something she speaks about with fearless honesty in her book. But in doing so, Wasted opens the way for a larger conversation about the opaque line that separates social drinking from binge drinking and the seductiveness of the Australian drinking culture that not only allows it, but encourages it.

But first, Wasted is a sister’s tender recollection of a brother lost. We come to know Alexander through Muir’s retelling of his short life. We appreciate his gentle kindness, laugh at his larrikinism and humour and see his “pruney” sucked thumb that fitted his sister’s hand so well. We forgive him the stupid things he did when he was drunk because we know he did them without malice or aggression. Many of us will see our own fun-loving brother or son or nephew in Alexander. And this is one of the many strengths of Wasted: Alexander was the every boy.

Equally, Muir’s depiction of the closeness and support of her mother’s large family (she is one of seven sisters) is a beating heart throughout her story. Muir describes them as “warm and funny and flawed and wonderful.” As readers we are grateful for them. They provide proof that people can endure grief.

Readers are saved us from some of the pain of Muir's grief though by positioning the context of it around the behaviour of all drinkers. In this, Wasted is a story for anyone who drinks, anyone who drinks to excess, anyone who looks on, mute, as friends or loved ones drink to excess. She demands our attention, but not through blame or judgement or proselytizing. She does it through scrupulous journalism and unflinching honesty about her own drinking.

Muir’s intelligent and insightful analysis of Australia’s drinking culture demonstrates how alcohol consumption is celebrated in this country and how excessive drinking is often worn like a badge of honour. But beneath the veneer of nonchalance, easy conversation, self-confidence and adventure it allows, she highlights a host of personal and social tragedies associated with its overconsumption – sexual assault, violence, fractured families.

Muir explores these other narratives through extensive research and interviews. She speaks with facial surgeons, psychiatrists, academics, Red Frogs’ founder, Andy Gourley and Chris Raine, founder of Hello Sunday Morning, an online organisation for Australians wanting to change their drinking habits. She questions a National Alcohol Policy, fearful of getting a powerful liquor industry offside, that targets minors, drink drivers and Indigenous people, despite strong evidence that excessive alcohol consumption occurs across the entire population. She provides a balanced discussion about lockout laws and identifies the pros, cons and inconsistencies of this legislation. Muir also speaks with Paul Stanley, whose son Matthew was killed in a one-punch attack, and who at the time of writing had spoken with more than 150,000 school children, encouraging them to walk away from violent situations. Her interview with him painfully confirmed that grief is never far away, that it hijacks the person you were. Always at the root of the questions Muir asks is: “What happened to Alexander? How might it not have happened?”

Wasted doesn’t answer these questions or the many others it raises about the complex issue of excessive alcohol consumption in Australia. But this is because there are no quick-fix solutions. Alcohol is so deeply embedded into the Australian psyche that there can be no simple or easy answers to address its abuse. And there are many stakeholders involved in its consumption – consumers, suppliers, venue operators, governments and protection and health care agencies – so no individual or group can hope to bring about necessary and effective change on its own. It must come from a collective consciousness; a collective will for change.

Muir gives voice to that consciousness in her fearless, disquieting and important book. We are forced to look in a mirror as we read it. The reflection is not always flattering, but perhaps this is the place all drinkers must begin.