David Burton, How to be Happy: a memoir of love, sex and teenage confusion, Text Publishing, 26 august 2015, 272pp., $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925240344
Winner of the 2014 Text Prize, How to be Happy is David Burton’s autobiographical account of his life from about 13 through to his early 20s. It has a mix of styles, combining anecdotes and memoir with direct conversation with the reader. So while How to be Happy tells one person’s coming-of-age story, it also acts as a life coach, offering simple, modest advice. One truth we all know, is that life is never only just happy – we all have moments of sadness and hardship, evidenced here in David’s story. I found sections quite difficult to read. It’s confronting and sad, all the more because the issues were David’s real everyday demons: depression, anxiety, as well as peer and societal pressure. Watching David balance his personal hopes and academic goals, against his family troubles, and his friendship groups, reminded me of some of my own students over the past ten or so years. The quest to fit in, be a part of something, to be someone who makes a difference, who will be remembered, are such strong directives in young people, and often underpin many of their choices. Sometimes the bad ones. It’s called ‘growing up’.
As with most memoirs, Burton’s follows familiar ground. He works through his life chronologically, except when it suits the story to deviate from that. Early people leave the book, never to be heard of again, even those who are a major part of the story (What happened to you, Simon?). Some life choices and events are discussed, defended, and explained in minute detail, while others are glossed over with a casual mention. And while awful things happen continually throughout the book, the final and culminating act is shocking and scary, even though in hindsight, it’s almost inevitable. That David is able to write about it, is a testament to his courage and his strong belief that others can learn from his story. He wants to show teenagers that there is hope, and people will help. You just need to reach out.
All the way through David uses humour and honesty to keep readers intrigued and absorbed. When he addresses his readers directly he is humble and straight-forward. At his book launch, he talked about the way young people can see right through the phoney games (he used a baser simile) that adults use, so he always tries to be upfront. There is no condescension here, no patronising lectures; it’s just truth and sincerity. Some of the content is going to be challenging for schools, such as the struggle David goes through with his sexuality. Does he like boys? Or girls? This is a major question posed through his memoir, and David ruminates often about sex, masturbation and intimacy. Just be aware that sex is talked about at length, although there is no on-page action. We are not given the same courtesy when it comes to his depression. David allows us to glimpse his utter desolation and blackest times. Can kids handle this depth of despair? I believe they can. I believe they need to.
This is an important book, one that deserves our attention and discussion because what David deals with is a sad reflection of what a lot of teenagers endure. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Trisha Buckley