Non-fiction - hardcover; Beautiful Books; 208 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
As teenagers we all do things that are embarrassing, irresponsible and occasionally reckless. But spare a thought for American writer Darin Strauss, whose life was changed abruptly when he was just 18 and a month away from high-school graduation.
His book, Half A Life, recounts what it has been like to spend more than 20 years atoning for a tragic incident, summed up succinctly in the opening line of the memoir:
Half my life ago, I killed a girl.
It was May 1988, and Strauss was driving his father's car. A cyclist, on the road ahead of him, swerved across two lanes of traffic and collided with his vehicle, which was travelling at forty miles an hour.
Celine Zilke, the girl on the bike, was sixteen and will always be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh-grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts -- Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off notes in the public-speaking class we took together.
The book examines Strauss's life -- from the accident to Celine's funeral and the resultant civil law case brought against him by Celine's parents -- in painstaking detail. It is unflinching in its honesty, often uncomfortably so.
And while he claims that his "moral and aesthetic codes argued against my writing an accident memoir", that is essentially what Half A Life is about. It is Strauss's way of dealing with the past, examining his guilt and taking responsibility for his actions.
While Strauss was found innocent of any wrong-doing right from the beginning, that doesn't stop his fellow students from shunning him at school. And it doesn't stop him from acting out the emotions and behaviour that he feels is expected of him. Sadly, his remorse plagues him right through his twenties and into his thirties. It is only when he gets married and becomes a parent that he is able to put things in perspective.
The book is told in quite a straightforward, occasionally punchy prose style and can be easily read in one or two sittings. It never feels like he is "creating an entertainment out of misfortune" (as he puts it), but I did find the woe-is-me attitude, while completely understandable, slightly tiresome.
Ultimately, this is a very sad book about what it is to be human, coming to terms with past actions, however tragic and painful they might be.
Half A Life won the 2010 National Book Circle Critics Award for Autobiography.