History of a Suicide, Jill Bialosky

“Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us. I was wrong.”

This is how Bialosky begins her account of her “voyage to come to grips” with her sister’s suicide.

On one level, there is almost nothing more to say about this book. Its subject matter is so fraught, so intense, so complex, that trying to encapsulate it in the confines of a review like this cannot possibly do it even an iota of justice. Bialosky’s narrative is guilt ridden and twisted, the challenges of her sister’s suicide enmeshed with those challenges that confront her own life. She cannot separate one tragedy from the other and there is no point trying.

But, despite the sorrow and despair that lines the edges of these pages, Bialosky’s memoir is magnificently told. It is littered with references that expose the author as a fine literary afficionado. There are allusions to Styron, to Eliot and to Plath’s The Bell Jar. In trying to understand her sister’s action, Bialosky (I want to call her Jill!) journeys into the very heart of what makes people suicidal, she visits psychologists, reads everything written on the subject, crawls into the skin of her sister, pouring over her journal, retracing steps over and over and over again, seeking some sense, or perhaps just seeking absolution.

What makes this such a particularly beautiful book is that Bialosky knows that her sister’s “life and death have shaped us in profound ways”, she knows that her sister’s loss is a shadow over her life, “wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard”  and that the dialogue she will have with her sister’s death “is never ending”. Ironically she writes: “In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.”

So, while Bialosky spends almost the entire book exploring the reasons for her sister’s suicide and evaluating her own reactions to the event, what she has actually written is a love story, for “no one is truly dead when we go on loving them.” The compassion and grace with which she positions herself and her family in this book is testimony to her realisation that “the tragedy of suicide is that only in its aftermath does everything that came before suddenly seem important and dear.”

Quite simply one of the most beautiful, breath-taking books I think I have ever had the pleasure to read.

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