History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky, book review: The guilt, the grief, and a ghost that never leaves you

A thoughtful and elegant attempt to come to terms with suicide

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The Independent Culture

We humans instinctively crave resolution; we have an in-built need for closure. That’s why crime dramas are so popular: the puzzle gets solved, the Universe shifts back to normal at the end of the story.

But one of the problems with the real world is that it often doesn’t give us any resolution, and that’s never more apparent than around the delicate subject of suicide.

This thoughtful and elegant book is an attempt by the author to come to terms with the suicide of her younger sister Kim, at the age of 21, back in 1990. Jill Bialosky was 10 years older than her sibling when it happened, and while she’s now a successful poet and editor in New York with a loving family around her, she has always been haunted by Kim’s death, plagued by grief and guilt in equal measure.

How could she not have known how desperate her little sister was? What could she have done differently that might have prevented her from killing herself? The book is subtitled “My Sister’s Unfinished Life”, and History of a Suicide is exactly that, an attempt to fill in the blanks of Kim’s life, a kind of tribute or memorial, but also a deeper look at the nature of suicide itself, as well as the rippling effects it has on those left behind.

There are elements of memoir, exposing a family history with more than its fair share of tragedy and dysfunction. Kim’s father (Jill’s stepfather) left when she was three, and their mother suffered depression and anxiety, factors that Bialosky thinks played heavily in establishing Kim’s troubled mindset. But this book is more than a memoir; there is poetry, literary references, psychology, some forensic work and wider social questions about how we interact, or don’t, with those around us in the modern world.

Bialosky looks at how suicide has been discussed by the great writers and thinkers, from Sylvia Plath to Shakespeare, from TS Eliot to Herman Melville, and she examines a lot of the medical work that has been carried out in the field over the years.

But throughout it all, the ghost of her dead sister still haunts her every moment of everyday, a lingering presence in everything she does. Bialosky goes to therapy and attends group meetings with other survivors of suicide, and finds some solace in both, but even 25 years after the terrible tragedy, the impression this book gives is one of a continuing struggle.

For the most part, Bialosky writes beautifully and treats her subject matter with grace and delicacy, but there are occasional moments when her need to find answers and her frustration at not finding them overwhelms her writing, skewing her focus a little.

Ultimately, though, the author is to be commended for writing so honestly and openly about such a difficult subject, and History of a Suicide is a fine tribute to a lost sister. But just like life, there are no easy answers within the book’s pages.

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