Chad Johnston's Reviews > Her Last Death

Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg
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Feb 11, 2010

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Read in February, 2010


Memoirs are ultimately only as good as the lives of their writers. I am halfway into Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle, and it is so effortless, so compelling, so funny, and so shocking it makes me jealous. I do not wish I could live the author's life, mind you - I simply wish I could write such a book myself.

With Susanna Sonnenberg's memoir Her Last Death, the reader experiences a mix of things. Here we have a unique story of a girl who is raised by a mother who whirls through cocaine and lies and lovers with the force of a Kansas tornado. The most shocking of her lies? That she has cancer, a ploy to get closer to her children. The book starts out with the author finding out that her mother has been in a horrible crash in Barbados, and the reader is left to wonder if the crash is a fabrication. The author chooses not to visit her mother on her deathbed, and this sets the tone for the book and sets the story in motion.

Her Last Death is the story of the author's relationship with her mother, her sister, a steady succession of lovers and, finally, the man she eventually marries and the children she has with him. It is shocking and serious in tone, with no site of a funny bone for miles. Where The Glass Castle has wit to make its more shocking elements more buoyant, Her Last Death is humorless but poetic in its prose.

If anything, this book is an argument in favor of nurture in the old nature versus nurture debate. Despite seeing her mother's excesses, she follows in her mother's footsteps in the way she migrates from one lover to another as if she is trying on a pair of shoes. She passes judgment on her mother, but then goes on to act like a more conscientious version of her. How can she act otherwise when this is all she has known?

Sonnenberg's life is a messy one, later including an abortion when her husband emphatically rejects fatherhood before accepting it a mere matter of months later. The author herself with angst that the aborted baby would have come to term two months after her husband changed his mind. This part of the book infuriated me, as she and her husband either wanted to have the baby or abort it. Putting the child up for adoption was out of the question for them. There was no consideration whatsoever for the child.

Sonnenberg's writing is poetic, heartfelt, and a triumph in the way it conveys her story. One thing I noticed in particular, and Sonnenberg notes this herself: She grew up so fast, experienced adult things at such a young age, found herself in such serious situations so young, and all of this because of her mother's influence more than anything else. It is as though she never had a proper childhood, never got to laugh at things children laugh at. Some books hint at a spiritual reality beyond the frame of the written page, and this one does not. It is void of God, void of anything beyond the reality of the moment, and this is no doubt because the moment is always so urgent for Sonnenberg. It demands her attention. But it is also sad to me that she is left to sort through her life with eyes that she largely inherited from her mother. She is damaged, but hopeful as she has two children of her own, bringing them into a world where she resolves to be a mother unlike her own.

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