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Books: A journey around her dead sister

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Jill Bialosky. Photo by Joanne Chan

Jill Bialosky. Photo by Joanne Chan

Jill Bialosky. Photo by Joanne Chan

'The dialogue we have with the dead is never-ending," says poet and novelist Jill Bialosky. And so, twenty years after the suicide of her youngest sister, Kim, she has set out to try and join the dots of what happened, and to recreate the person her sister was - the funny, vital, warm, loving, real person - rather than the cipher left behind by her last, enormous act. Using police records, autopsy report, photos, research about suicide and works of literature as well as Kim's journals and essays, "I have tried to bring her alive again - to restore her from the legend of suicide."

Despite familiarity with the bare facts - Kim was 21 in April 1990. She came home from a night out, wrote a note, got into her mother's car, turned the ignition and went to sleep. In the morning she was found, dead of asphyxiation - Jill, driven by "grief stained by shame and guilt" gradually begins to piece together a painful jigsaw.

She retraces the sorrowful history of their family. Her father's sudden death of a heart attack when her mother was just 24, with three small daughters. Her mother's gradual dependence on pills, her need to find another man to protect and care for her. Her long spells in retreat from the world. "I remember feeling that my destiny somehow depended on my mother and not being at all sure that my mother had the kind of strength I could rely on," Jill writes, without blame or antagonism.

Then a second marriage, and the birth of Kim. "The only truly good thing that eventually came out of that." By the time Kim was three, it was over, her father gone, and the damage done by abandonment set to ripple through her psyche, a perpetual motion of trauma.

For Jill, Kim was almost like a baby of her own. She changed her, fed her, woke in the night with her, adored her. But such was the age gap, that by the time Kim was a teenager, she lived alone with a mother who depended heavily on her. She dropped out of high school, and began dating an older guy. A low-achiever who sometimes hit her. Clearly he wasn't any good for her, but neither was he the full story. That begins in childhood, and wanders, elusive and ambiguous, to the end.

Even as she tries to examine Kim's life, there are further tragedies unfolding in Jill's. Three months pregnant at the time of Kim's death, her baby is born, and lives just ten minutes. Over a year later, she gives birth again, the baby lives for six hours. The way in which these tragedies weave into the earlier one is "like threads in a rope," until finally, the adoption of a baby, Lucas, and his growing up, adds urgency to the work, and Jill learns enough, just enough, to realise that, "It's not about spinning the bottle of guilt and seeing where it lands."

A beautiful, heart-breaking, deeply intimate book.

History of a Suicide: My Sister's Unfinished Life

Jill Bialosky

Granta, £16.99

Sunday Independent