Extreme lives

They say that reality is stranger than fiction. This is certainly the case in Her Last Death, Susanna Sonnenberg’s new memoir.

They say that reality is stranger than fiction. This is certainly the case in Her Last Death, Susanna Sonnenberg’s new memoir.

The book starts out with Sonnenberg getting the news that her mother is severely injured, and her chances of survival are slim. Then, to the disapproval of her family members, she makes the announcement that she will not travel to her mother’s probable deathbed. Thus, from the beginning, the story grabs the attention in a grip that holds firm straight through to the end.

As the narrative rolls out one appalling event after another, it brings to mind another memoirist-James Frey. He wrote of things that seemed impossible, and as it turns out, he did make them up. But it seems like Sonnnenberg is telling the truth (maybe we should wait to see what Oprah says).

Sonnenberg’s mother did give her cocaine as an eighth grade graduation present. At 15, she did have an affair with her married English teacher. Insert Lolita reference here–wait, Sonnenberg already does that, writing that in his efforts to mold his real-life lover, that same teacher had her read the famous novel. James Frey comparisons, and poor jokes aside, Sonnenberg has avoided the pitfalls of the memoir and written an excellent and evocative work, one that I highly recommend.

Memoir itself, a form that some have called the epitome of egotism, is a difficult thing to do well. As opposed to fiction, the writer has to assume that their life story is somehow more interesting than the norm, and therefore worthy of mass consumption.

Memoir writers ask each reader to take time out of their own life in order to become invested in the life of a total stranger. Some writers are even more audacious, like Sonnenberg, asking their readers to invest in a life that is not one of celebrity or historical import. Though such demands may seem outlandish, Sonnenberg is entirely deserving of the attention.

What makes her work excellent is that it is both alien and universal. The average person did not snort coke with their mother, or engage in sexual relations with one of their high school teachers. They can, however, relate to the struggles and needs of the parent-child relationship and they can relate to the difficulty of letting go of the past.

The technical aspects of her storytelling abilities are perfectly compatible with her story. Her skill and comfort in the medium come through in her subtlety. While the events and emotions of the book are grandiose, the language and authority of craft cruise quietly under the radar. She does not draw attention to the fact that she is a confident and skilled writer. Instead, she lets her skill compliment the work she does, which comes out crisp, clear and satisfying.

Sonnenberg also avoids the dangers of self-pity. Readers are not left with the sense that everything was her mother’s fault, nor do her own actions come out as squeaky-clean. In the end there is a definite sense of the fact that everyone must come to terms with their own demons, even if that means making decisions that others would call unthinkable.

Her Last Death is not a depiction of the glamorous life either. Though many of the trappings are there–exotic vacations, drugs, money and celebrities cruise in and out of the narrative–the tale is anything but glamorous. Sonnenberg’s story reveals the cracked foundation that remained constant through her experiences of life. Envy is certainly not a feeling readers are left with.

Nor does she leave her reader’s with doubt. She lends herself a certain amount of credibility through the inclusion of diary entries and saved correspondence written during the times that the events of her tale took place. It’s a comfort to know that her’s is not a story relying on internal memory alone. While it is accepted that the majority of memoirs are not 100 percent accurate, her source materials lend credence to her story.

Her Last Death is a fantastic balance of shock and sentiment, with neither overpowering the other. Sonnenberg’s writing is skillful and precise, and her story is strong enough to carry readers all the way through. Her story is one that satisfies our cathartic needs and it connects experiences that are so common in life.