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The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing

Review

The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing

THE BOOK OF ATLANTIS BLACK could be a true crime saga or a mystery. But, in fact, it is Betsy Bonner’s “search for a sister gone missing,” a memoir of loss and a tale of dysfunction, addiction, trauma and violence. Bonner’s older sister Nancy, who renamed herself Atlantis Black, was a musician who penned songs about pain, sex, desire and abuse. She was reported dead in a Tijuana hotel room in 2008 at the age of 31, after months of increased drug use and mental health issues and while in the midst of a criminal trial.

Bonner is a poet, but the book is sparse and straightforward in its descriptions of people and action and is never lacking in grace. She strips the narrative down to the bones with no extraneous words or flowery illustrations. She writes with obvious restraint and caution, leaving readers with a trim and solemn remembrance of her unhappy, unwell, enigmatic and charismatic sister.

"Bonner is a poet, but the book is sparse and straightforward in its descriptions of people and action and is never lacking in grace. She strips the narrative down to the bones with no extraneous words or flowery illustrations."

There are two related stories, each full of diverging accounts, that are told here. The first concerns Nancy, the sister with whom Bonner grew up, and the other is about Atlantis, the woman Nancy made herself into. Nancy was a bold and brave child, but she experienced physical abuse at the hands of her father and sexual abuse from a neighbor for years. Atlantis, the performer Nancy grew up to be, expressed this trauma in music but also continued to suffer the consequences of drug addiction, as well as the exacerbation of serious mental illness.

THE BOOK OF ATLANTIS BLACK is a tribute to a sister lost long before her death, and an examination of a woman’s spiral into darkness, danger and self-harm. Bonner honestly explores her feelings for both Nancy and Atlantis, though this is not to say that they were distinct figures in any way. In her grief is confusion, sorrow, anger and relief.

As the book progresses, readers are drawn not only into Bonner’s own conflicted and complicated feelings about her sister, but also into the mysterious last few weeks of Atlantis’ life and the still-unclear circumstances surrounding her death in Mexico. A troubling figure, called Gretchen by Bonner, appears on the scene before Atlantis faces charges related to filling fraudulent prescriptions and as she deals with the case on top of her drug use, homelessness and declining mental health. Bonner speculates that Gretchen has much to do with Atlantis’ crimes, arrest, crisis and even death. While her narration remains steady, even clinical, the sense of doom increases as she moves readers toward Atlantis’ untimely and lonely apparent suicide.

Although this is the story of a damaged family, there is no denying that it is also a whodunnit --- if not about Atlantis’ death, then about the forces that seemed to be pushing her in a particular direction by manipulating her paranoia and then trying to manipulate members of her family. Was there a larger, more sinister plan in play? Perhaps. But Bonner at times has been careless with what could be evidence, so her theories about the end of her sister’s life remain quite speculative and the experts from whom she seeks assistance can offer her little in the way of answers.

This is a gripping, if ultimately frustrating, read. Gripping because Bonner captures the best in Atlantis, as well as the most horribly compelling. Frustrating because there is little resolution to Atlantis’ tale, and her life, as depicted by her sister, seems on the whole to have been one of pain. It is difficult to pinpoint any substantial truths in this muddy tale: Either Atlantis was a suicidal drug addict who was in deep legal trouble, or she was at the mercy of a shadowy psychopath. Bonner is unsure, and readers will be as well. Still, there are some interesting insights here about family, hurt, loss and absolution.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 14, 2020

The Book of Atlantis Black: The Search for a Sister Gone Missing
by Betsy Bonner

  • Publication Date: August 4, 2020
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Tin House Books
  • ISBN-10: 1947793772
  • ISBN-13: 9781947793774