Kate Schmitt’s Singing Bones came to me during a fragmented time of my life, and this book about suicide, depression, and storytelling spoke to me in deep, mysterious, and ultimately healing ways.
Ever since my dad shot himself several years ago, I have been alternately grief-stricken, numb, and inquisitive about his death. Why did he do it? What did it mean? And what does his suicide say about who I am and who I’ll become?
Singing Bones is a fragmented quest for Schmitt to understand her grandmother’s suicide, even as the author descends into an underworld of depression, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts. It’s a memoir that takes the form of loosely interconnected flash essays, bits of poetry, epigrams, and other hybrid forms. In fact, the book’s fragmentation is vital to its meaning, purpose, and overall effect. Her story could not have been told in the same way, in other words, with a straightforward chronological narrative.
Many literary tropes and models shape this narrative—everything from fairy tales to Virgil’s The Aeneid—and those literary references are an integral part of the story Schmitt is telling. As much as anything else, the book is about how stories get constructed and told.
In an early chapter-essay called “Time Warp,” the narrator says that when she looks back at her notebooks from the prior ten years, “I see that I have recorded the days out of order, as though chronology was always unclear to me, sequence and consequence unconnected.” The text mirrors these non-chronological journals, even as it shapes a narrative out of them.
Some of the book’s essays are addressed directly to her grandmother: “I think of your life as a colored line, stretching above me, a downward-slanting trajectory with a date at the beginning and end.” She speaks to her grandmother in an attempt to solve the mystery of her life and her death. In this sense, the book resembles Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which uses fragmented, non-chronological pieces to try to solve the mystery of a father’s suicide.
Singing Bones has another mystery to solve, as well: the mystery of the narrator’s own mental and emotional state. At one point she ends up in the same clinic where her grandmother spent time, and she begins to realize that the tendency toward depression and suicidal thinking are in her DNA, in her very bones. Solving the mystery of her grandmother becomes, therefore, a way to solve her own mystery.
The arc of Singing Bones, however, is not all about descent. It’s also about coming back up to the surface. The narrator gradually starts to realize that she has some choice in the matter. Suicide is not, necessarily, her destiny. She can decide to live. She discovers this not only through therapy and pharmaceuticals, though she gets plenty of those, but also through the process of storytelling itself. Constructing a narrative, no matter how fragmented, is an act of survival, an act of claiming territory in the land of the living.
The book’s last essay, “Orpheus, Kiss” evokes this sense of redemption, this realization that something vital and almost magical happens through the telling of stories: “I went to the underworld to be with you and all I found was a bare room and a pile of bones. But when I began to gather them up, they started to sing.”
She recovers her grandmother, and in so doing, she saves herself: “All those years I didn’t realize that this was a rescue mission—I was supposed to go to the underworld, but not to stay with you. I was supposed to bring you back.”
I’m still trying to bring my dad back. I’ve started to write fragmented stories. I’ve mapped out the journey to the underworld. I’ve asked why, how, and what now. I’ve tried to make sense of the senseless act of suicide.
I haven’t yet gathered up his bones, but when I do—as the living must—I hope they start to sing.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Kenyon Review, Zone 3, Pinch, and other publications. She’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.