The first few pages of Sinkhole recount the final moments of the author’s father’s life, as the author imagines they occurred.  Slipping away from the bedroom where his wife sleeps, her father writes a note and leaves the house for the last time.  It is nearly zero degrees in Minneapolis as he proceeds to the park where he usually walks his dog. All of this has been methodically planned: “My father chooses to die on the north end of the bridge.  There, the canopy is so dense that, from the street, the structure appears to grow from the hill. In the dim light spreading from the railings, the crown of its arch bestows darkness” (p.4).
Immediately following her father’s suicide, author Juliet Patterson is, naturally, overcome.  After the initial shock, she begins to wonder about her father’s motivation.  She realizes she did not know him as well as she had thought.  Theirs is a family that “rarely talked about important things” (p.9).  One of those things is that both her father’s father and mother’s father had also taken their own lives.  She begins to ask questions: “Who were these men?  What led to these deaths in my family?  What did my family’s history of suicide imply?  And what did it mean for my own future?” (p.10) The remainder of Sinkhole tells the story of how the author investigates the death of her grandfathers, a quest that takes her back to her family’s ancestral home in Kansas.   

One day, on an impulse, the author locates her grandmother’s abandoned house.  Like other properties in this part of the country where there were formerly mines, it has fallen into a sinkhole.  She sees the “terrifying alien world of a sinkhole” (p.111) as a metaphor for “a realm that I could not enter,” as she struggles to make sense of her family’s past. Eventually she undergoes a transformation and comes to terms with her loss.  The least she can do to break the cycle is to be honest about her family history with her young son.     


Juliet Patterson, the author of Sinkhole, has previously published two collections of poetry, and the book was written with a poet’s sensibility.  At the same time, the author’s copious research into suicide lends it substance.  She captures the specificity of the Kansas landscape and brings attention to the role that geography may play in suicide.  For example, the author speculates on the effect of local environmental hazards on her grandfathers’ mental health.    

Anyone who has had someone close to them commit suicide will identify with what Patterson endures.  At first, the situation seems unreal: “The kitchen was cluttered with flowers…It looked something like a party, but it was nothing like a party” (p.171). Friends are supportive, but after a while, when she is still not herself, she is told it is time to move on.  She is given well-meaning but unhelpful suggestions that range from seeing a shaman to buying a teddy bear.  She tries to be “a good partner, a good employee, and a good patient” (p.173), but feels alone.  She experiences a worsening of her physical ailments, and it does not even occur to her that it might have been triggered by emotional stress.   

Ultimately, the advice of others and learning the facts about suicide do not provide as much relief as reading novels and memoirs: “It was the literary forms of solace I turned to that granted me passage to my feelings” (p.176). One such book, A Grief Observed, was published by C. S. Lewis after the death of his wife.  It is not difficult to imagine that Sinkhole will serve a similar purpose for its readers with its genuineness, its haunting imagery, and its sensitivity. 


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