Tuesday, March 19, 2013

High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze, by Jill Stark

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Health reporter Jill Stark wrote some of her award winning journalism on binge drinking while suffering terrible hangovers. This honest memoir confronts not only personal contradictions but also the nation's serious drinking problem. It's all done in a snappy, non-preachy way from someone who's been there and has discovered there's more to life than getting smashed on every social occassion.

These sorts of books, where the author puts themselves through some ordeal and then writes a book about their experiences, generally make me suspicious of an opportunistic author and publisher. Happily Jill Stark’s High Sobriety is nothing like that at all. It may just be the perfect book for the times, with its mix of autobiography, confession and journalism.

Jill Stark moved from her home of Scotland to Australia a decade ago, got her dream job as health reporter for The Age and won awards for her reporting on binge drinking. The irony was, some of this award winning journalism was written with an almighty hangover. For twenty years, Stark confesses, she had been a binge drinker herself, weekend benders being a normal part of her life. After one particularly bad hangover, replete with panic attacks and stabbing pains in the side, she decided she needed a break from the booze. Inspired by Chris Raine’s blog Hello Sunday Morning, where participants pledge to cut out alchohol for either three, six or 12 months, Stark signed up for a three month stint. An article on this three months of sobriety followed, which really hit a nerve, and a book deal quickly followed.

How do you write an engaging page-turner about a non-activity? That’s a good question. Stark confesses that when she sat down to write High Sobriety she hit a huge writer’s block. But you’d never know it from the text. She has the reporter’s talent for making sure every page is snappy, engaging and to the point. This is basically a memoir which keeps bringing everything back to the theme of binge drinking. Seamlessly interspersed amongst the personal are interviews with professionals from the field of drug and alchohol addiction and reporting on the latest research.

What essentially makes High Sobriety work is the confessional nature of the book. Stark is completely candid about her problems with drink (or her inability to come to terms with the fact that maybe there was a problem) and the negative health impacts it’s had on her.  This approach ensures the book is never preachy. This is someone who knew all the risks better than anyone but stored these facts away like abstract notions that had no relevance to the real world. By telling her own story, 35-year-old Stark manages to tell a lot of the nation’s story of alchohol abuse. Amongst the book’s many fascinating factoids, we learn that booze costs Australia some $36 billion dollars a year in health costs, crime and lost productivity. How do we afford it? Taxes on alcohol only take about $6 billion a year.

This book should be a game-changer if it gets a wide enough readership. If I knew anyone who seemed to have a bit of a drinking problem, I’d slip them a copy of this book. It’s cheerful, jokey title makes High Sobriety seem a bit of a lark (there’s plenty of sharp humour in the book) and would be accepted by the recipient good naturedly. Yet its contents are powerful enough to change someone’s life for the better.

High Sobriety: My Life Without Booze, by Jill Stark. Published by Scribe Publications. ISBN: 9781922070227  RRP: $29.95