In High Sobriety, her first book, Jill Stark chronicled her experiences over a year during which she abstained from drinking alcohol. The book came about following Stark’s realisation, at the age of thirty-five, that she was a health reporter who was also a binge drinker. “During the week, I write about Australia’s booze-soaked culture. At weekends, I write myself off.” She had had her first sip of lager at the age of thirteen and, from that point on, her social life revolved around drinking. As you might expect, her decision to go teetotal made for a tumultuous year. She had to cope with the stress of work without having alcohol to serve as a crutch, while she had to navigate the dating scene without any recourse to Dutch courage. She also had to face scepticism, disapproval and occasional outrage from friends and colleagues when she revealed that she had stopped drinking.

One of Stark’s lifelong dreams was to write a book and have it published, and with High Sobriety she did just that. What’s more, the book was a massive success. The memoir of her booze-free year was witty and engaging, and it appealed to readers worldwide. Stark found herself touted as the spokesperson for teetotalism. She was heavily in demand for interviews and speaking engagements and her book stayed on the global bestseller lists for ages. She was riding on the crest of a wave both professionally and personally (she was now dating an Australian sports star). After years of chasing her dreams, it seemed like she had finally made it. Her life should have been perfect, but somehow it wasn’t.

As it turned out, finally achieving her “happy ever after” sent Stark spiralling into a depression. She was sinking ever deeper into ennui and despair at the same time as she was outwardly projecting an image of success and contentment. People were looking to her for inspiration but she could barely inspire herself to get out of bed in the morning. In fact, when she couldn’t keep up the pretence any longer, Stark suffered an “epic breakdown”. This experience ultimately gave rise to Happy Never After, which is part memoir and part journalistic investigation into the burgeoning wellness industry.

In Happy Never After, Stark recounts her personal history of depression and anxiety, which dates back to her childhood, and poignantly notes that although both conditions have been with her for nearly her entire life, most people she knew (both friends/loved ones and fans drawn to her as a result of reading High Sobriety) would be very surprised to hear it. Although notionally much of the stigma surrounding mental health conditions has been broken down in recent years, in reality people are still loath to admit that they are suffering (and, seemingly, to recognise such suffering in others), particularly if the condition in question detracts from the overarching modern goal of happiness. At a time when there are more happiness (or wellness) books, practices, apps, courses, teachers, etc. than ever before, it seems to be considered a failing, almost shameful in fact, to admit to not being happy.

But surely, if all these happiness initiatives really worked, then they’d render themselves obsolete? Taking her own experiences of depression and anxiety and her attempts to secure/recognise happiness as the starting point, in Happy Never After Stark examines the so-called happiness fairytale and all that it entails. She interviews (alleged) experts, examines the available data and investigates (and road tests) many of the quick fixes that promise so much in terms of improving mental health but frequently (always?) fail to deliver. She ultimately comes to realise that rather than perceiving happiness as some kind of final goal, it is important to recognise the happy moments that occur alongside the most mundane of circumstances, to appreciate what you have rather than to always strive for something better.

Happy Never After is an insightful and emotional account of Jill Stark’s battle against depression and anxiety, and it is written with all her trademark wit, humour and warmth. Her personal experiences serve as an opener for her investigation of modern mental health and the role/impact of the wellness industry. Some of her findings are quite startling, others rather bonkers, and taken together they present a picture of a world undergoing a massive mental health crisis, which some seek to profit from rather than to overcome. Fortunately though, Stark’s own experiences suggest that it is possible to recover from this modern (un)happiness-related malady and to find contentment in the world as it is rather than in the world that you might prefer.

Erin Britton 4*

Happy Never After by Jill Stark
Scribe UK 9781911617587 pbk Mar 2019