‘Beautiful Unseen’ a meditation on perception, memory, and mortality

“The Beautiful Unseen”

Kyle Boelte

My son came home from school last week with news that a student had attempted suicide at school that day.

For most of us, the concept of suicide is shocking. Yet suicide is more prevalent than we might wish — how many of us have not been personally affected by the irrevocable decision of someone we know who has taken his or her own life? For those of us who knew that person, there is disbelief, grief, anger and often guilt.

Vashon writer Kyle Boelte dissects this swirl of emotions in his new memoir, “The Beautiful Unseen.”

When Boelte was 13 years old, his 16-year-old brother, Kris, hung himself in the basement. There had been the not-unusual teen trajectory of experimentation with drugs and sex, questioning authority, some trouble at school. But no one had seen this coming.

By the time Boelte is 30, he is living in San Francisco, and his brother’s suicide happened more than half his lifetime ago. Boelte struggles to remember the timbre of Kris’s voice, the jokes he told, the things he cared about most.

To help him recapture the past, his parents give him an old cardboard box containing some keepsakes — letters, photos, sympathy cards, newspaper articles about his brother’s death — but Boelte finds he must make this reacquaintance slowly.

At the same time that he begins to probe into his brother’s short life, he finds an apt metaphor in the fog that sweeps into the Bay Area so insidiously — obscuring, then revealing, then obscuring again. Confounding one’s sense of direction or the closeness of things nearby. Isolating.

Boelte finds solace in hiking along the beaches and hills in the Bay Area, and his personal encounters with the variabilities of fog cultivate a fascination that prompts him to investigate the whys and wherefores of this climatological phenomenon. As he learns, ephemeral as fog may appear to be, it has exerted a significant impact over time on everything from shipwrecks to the ecology of redwood forests.

“The Beautiful Unseen” offers a dual narrative of these companion explorations.

For this reader, the chapters devoted to fog sometimes dwell too much on Boelte’s personal feelings of disorientation. From a literary standpoint, the metaphor’s effectiveness sometimes gets lost in the murk of repetitious sensation, and the truly interesting science of fog is relegated to the back seat. This could be the result of patching together essays that originally appeared elsewhere, and a stronger editorial presence might have ameliorated the uneven execution.

On the other hand, it took real courage for Boelte to look into what he perceived as the comfort and normalcy of family life to try to discern what might have gone so tragically awry for his brother.

In “The Beautiful Unseen,” Boelte borrows notes from the likes of artists as disparate as John Cage and Terry Tempest Williams, and oscillates disconsolately between memory, mirage, hallucination, heartbreak and listening before arriving at a profound place where his best choice is — having mourned — to move on.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.