Review by Frank Plowright
Ulli Lust’s recollections of a summer spent travelling through Italy 25 years previously clocks in at over 450 story pages, which not only speaks to a phenomenal memory to flesh out diary entries, but to the personal importance of the trip in forming who she became.
Lust opens with extracts from her teenage diaries, revealing narcissistic tendencies and a rejection of conformity. At seventeen in 1984 she’s living in Vienna and deliberately courting controversy, but for all her intelligence seemingly unaware of how near to danger she’s skirting. Her diary reveals awareness about the idea of two seventeen year old girls hitching to Italy with almost nothing other than the clothes they’re wearing and a sleeping bag, which feeds into the title of attempting to live every day as if it’s your last. As her trip continues she reveals death has hardly been a stranger during her lifetime, and it’s not as if she doesn’t have examples of poor choices, yet on she goes, determined to rebel.
Over the first few chapters the art is still developing, and these have stilted and wonky people and unimaginative viewpoints, but section by section the Lust’s pages improve, with a consistency to people and a greater idea of visual appeal, especially scenery. There’s a lot of detail, both to people and surroundings, a very effective use of posture is evident all the way through, and there’s a nice line in different representations to represent different moods.
Despite her casual ignorance, for a long while Ulli’s luck holds out. Not everyone would want to be in her situation, but she and friend Edi make their way halfway down Italy without ever being in a situation beyond their control. However, that changes, and by midway through the book she’s accepting sleeping with someone as the price of a bed for the night. It becomes worse, and where the story heads from there is both harrowing and astonishing. That Lust is telling it in hindsight must only increase the anger and sorrow on her part. It certainly doesn’t paint Italian men of the 1980s in a good light, but should also raise questions on the part of any male readers as to how they might behave in similar situations. Raising the bar wouldn’t be difficult. Worse still, while Ulli at least has an awareness of how sordid things have become, Edi revels in the attention, not caring in the slightest that she’s involving herself with the Mafia by the time they reach Palermo. The point isn’t belaboured, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that both girls are seventeen.
That Ulli Lust, author, was in her forties when revisiting her experiences offers a different perspective, and she reframes what her younger self approaches as an adventure, ensuring it’s not read as such. Ulli makes it out alive, but is it a happy ending? Not really. Damage has been done, and a final betrayal awaits. Pick up on how her life progresses in How I Tried to be a Good Person, but it’s not smooth.
A selection of diary entries, pictures and explanations end Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, offering greater accounts of events that would have interrupted the flow if explained in-story. This is not an easy read, but it’s honest and memorable.