Book review: History of a Suicide

by Jill Bialosky
Granta, €26.85; ebook, €16.10
THEY say blues music is not made to get you into blue humour but to get you out of it. 

This thoroughgoing personal examination of and meditation on a sister’s suicide is offered as an attempt to understand what caused a 21-year-old woman to take her own life in 1990. 

It is quite obviously sad and at times deeply moving but it is not about experiencing by proxy the depression, despair, chronically low self-esteem and lack of any alternative felt by Kim Bialosky.

Instead, it is an imaginative autopsy of her entire life from when she was a baby through to her last moments that invite us not to wallow but to understand. It is a rich and generous book.

While Bialosky lives in a literary world in New York with her husband and son, and was reared with her sisters in Cleveland, it is a timely book in Irish terms where suicide has plunged many families into deepest grief, guilt, confusion and other addling emotions.

Bialosky is not a social scientist, psychologist or geneticist but she looks at her sister’s life from a number of such perspectives with the assistance of a breadth of reading on the subject interviews and the first hand observations of some of those closest to her late sister.

She sketches the bare bones of the story from the outset. The writer’s father died when she and her two sisters were young. Her mother re-married and while the family struggled at times to cement the bond with the new father figure, it was hoped that the arrival of a baby girl — Kim — in 1968 would bring them all closer.

The bond between dad and baby was very close at first but he met another woman and left the family when Kim was three years old. He had absolutely no contact with Kim or anyone else in the family for the next 10 years.

When she was 13, the dad came back to renew the bond, showering her with gifts and so on. But the teenager was having problems at that time. Her dad left again, not before telling her that she would amount to nothing. 

It is pretty clear from extracts of Kim’s own diaries that his withdrawal from her life caused a deep wound from which she never recovered. 

She developed a drug problem, she had a row with her boyfriend shortly before her suicide and after a much earlier teen pregnancy she had an abortion so it is far from being an easy one-dimensional story.

Kim herself, though troubled, emerges as a sweet, loving and articulate girl whose death has caused terrible pain to her family. 

The writer does not let herself off the hook with her own guilt about ‘what if’ she had done or said this or that. The love given by the mother to her family and her particular neediness is also examined.

One of the only areas that is comparatively glossed over in the book is the abortion. Given the almost forensic level of attention the writer gives to so many aspects of her sister’s life it feels like she pulls her punches on this issue, perhaps because it is such an emotive issue, not least in the States.

Literary references in the book sometimes illuminate although Jonathan Franzen’s pronouncements that novelist David Foster Wallace’s suicide was a choice to make himself a legend for the adulation of strangers and to inflict pain deliberately on those he loved does not belong in this book. 

Including it on Page 1 risks framing Kim’s own life in that very particular context and it is one of the few poor choices Jill Bialosky makes. 

Some of the quotes from psychologists are extremely thought-provoking. The actions and words of those closest to Kim are at times moving and the book itself is a powerful document of compassion and understanding.


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