Review: History of a Suicide

Probing mental darkness


By Jill Bialosky
Granta, £16.99

This is a beautiful and shattering book that brings down from heaven a woman from Cleveland, Ohio, on the cusp of adulthood, who loved cats and piggyback rides and longed for a father.

Jill Bialosky reconstructs the story of her 21-year-old sister Kim, youngest of four, whose bright future ended one April morning in 1990 when she was found dead in her mother's garage.

Bialosky probes the fathomlessness of the act of suicide and tries to give it coherence as a way of freeing herself and her wrecked family from its stain and grief.

She imagines her sister's anguished mind in the years, months, days and hours before her death. A girl in a precarious, all-female household longing for the presence of men. The father of the first three daughters had died young, leaving a mother unable to cope; Kim's father, husband number two, checked out after a few years, rarely reappearing except to tell his offspring she would never amount to much.

Bialosky dismisses theories that suicide is fuelled by depression

A dossier of indicators and probabilities is built from facts, documents, police reports, Kim's journals, others' conversations and memories.

Bialosky chronicles her own struggles to create a family and manage her sense of failure. She consults experts and seeks help in literature from Shakespeare to Herman Melville and Sylvia Plath.

Suicide is a fissure in the known universe, a glimpse of the "other side" from which we are at pains to avert our gaze while we go about the business of living, forgetting that death is ever-present in life.

An astonishing number of people succeed at suicide - 30,000 each year in the United States. Half-a-million more make an attempt severe enough to warrant emergency treatment. Once on the trail, Bialosky finds more suicides. Visiting their rabbi, the women gained neither wisdom nor comfort from him in the hours before Kim's funeral. Bialosky discovers later that even he had recently been brushed by suicide: his stepson had thrown himself in front of a moving train.

Bialosky dismisses theories that suicide is fuelled by depression (the majority of depressed people don't kill themselves) or caused by genes (no gene has been found). Looking for what it is that separates those who kill themselves from the rest of us, she deals in phantoms, plumbs depths of mystery, always hoping for redemption for herself and her sister.

Jill, 10 years the senior, was like Kim's second mother, and a confidante when Kim lost interest in high school, stumbled to achieve a healthy separation from their needy mother, and failed to bridge the chasm left by her deserting father. Was Jill responsible? Could she not have said something? Could she not have stopped Kim seeing the older man who was undoubtedly no good for her?

Kim's father is never named but his absence weighs heavily. Though called "History of a Suicide", the book is also a private psychological post-mortem, impoverished parent-child relationships at its acrid core.

"Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know," Bialosky declares before setting out her account. If someone is at risk, they should be watched 24-hours a day, psychiatrists recommend. If you think someone is suicidal what should you do, she enquires of one. "Dare to ask," he says.

Her book is also a literary tribute to a loved young person who seemed full of promise. Writing stills Jill Bialosky's internal chaos; in a sense, the writing of the book also saves Kim. She seems to be alive in the room while Jill conjures up her imagined thoughts, writing to transcend the limits of the existing literary canon.

No prior literature of suicide has succeeded in making a "full portrait of a living, breathing human being, no different from any one of us, who had lost the will to live", Bialosky asserts.

So she sets out to do so, and the story of Kim, written with courage and in sorrow, calls on our compassion for a grieving elder sister who places a monument of words on her sibling's grave.

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