Content warning: suicide
Sometimes a book has sat on my TBR long enough for me to forget what it’s about, but I usually just trust past me to have made the right choice in putting it on there and check it out from the library regardless. That happened with The Survival List by Courney Sheinmel (Katherine Tegen Books, 2019); it was at a different branch than my local one, so I hadn’t been able to get to it during the height of the pandemic. Restrictions have eased, and I’m back to being able to visit other libraries (we’ll see for how long. Looking at you, monkeypox…), so I was finally able to check this book out this past week, and hooboy, what a heartbreaking read.
Sloane’s older sister Talley has died by suicide, and Sloane and her father are left heartbroken, not understanding why, but unable to connect after such a devastating loss. When Sloane discovers a mysterious list in the pocket of the jeans Talley was wearing when she died, she’s confused, yet intrigued: what do all these things mean? She begins a quest to learn what these items and phrases meant to her sister, eventually leading her on a plane and out of state, in order to discover more about her beloved Talley.
Joining Sloane on this adventure is Adam, a boy whose number mysteriously ended up on the back of the list (but who claims to know nothing about Talley). Together, they go on a journey that leads to discovery of not only more about Sloane’s sister and the life she lived before she ended it too soon, but about Sloane as well.
Get out the box of tissues, friends. Once I realized what The Survival List was about, I was unsure if I could keep reading (even when I don’t remember what a book is about, I almost always just dive in without reading the inside flap. I like to live on the wild side…). Sloane’s pain in the beginning is raw and deeply felt; some of the passages in the first few chapters had me setting the book down for a few in order to take a few breaths while scrolling through social media (and with social media being the cesspool that it is these days, for that to be less emotionally taxing is saying something). I’m fortunate enough to have never lost anyone close to suicide, but I’ve supported friends who have lost friends, family members, and, devastatingly, children this way, and Ms. Sheinmel expertly nails the devastation and emotional fallout of the survivors.
While Sloane’s journey may be a little unattainable for most grieving teens (she’s able to travel to California due to the funds of a wealthy friend; her father thinks she’s out there attending a writing camp on an all-expenses-paid scholarship), the emotions here are strong and accurately portrayed, and the discoveries she makes about her sister are enlightening. Boy, do families need to up their communication games as a whole.
The Survival List is a gut-puncher of a novel wrapped in grief and devastation. It’s a heavy read, but it’s worth the emotional energy you’ll spend on it.