edited by Karen V. Kukil
(Anchor Books) $18

SUICIDE IS A TRANSFIXING STORY: the struggle, the downward spiral, the weird control asserted over life in the final one-way act. When Sylvia Plath turned on the gas jets in her oven and lay her head on a folded cloth she had placed there, she wrote the stunning end to a life story that--could she have known it?--people would tell over and over for years.

It was almost 40 years ago that the poet took her life, and this life is still in dispute. A cottage industry has sprung up around the various retellings of its facts, trying to get it straight, to assign blame, to decide whether or not she really meant to die. Shortly before his death in 1998, Plath's husband, the poet Ted Hughes, unsealed her journals--which were to be kept private until 2013, presumably to protect their two children--in order to publish them in unabridged form (a frustratingly abridged version was published in 1982). Well, not completely unabridged: One journal, according to Hughes, has "disappeared," and one--the one that contains entries written during Plath's separation from Hughes, up until her death--Hughes has allegedly destroyed. Even from the grave, Hughes maintains a modicum of control over how the story is told, so that we may never know, as if we could ever know (and as if these were the only two options) whether Hughes drove Plath to suicide, or whether Plath was on an inevitable road there, driven only by herself.

The journals tell us plenty else, however, and what they tell is both chilling and ordinary, and even the most ordinary events bear the gloss of the tragedy we know ensues. The early entries, which follow Plath through Smith College before she met and married Hughes, express worries typical of an ambitious young woman: about her future, about men, about how the marriage she considered inevitable might sap her abilities as a writer. The slightest dip into self-doubt, however, seems like a terrible portent.

She is not yet the Sylvia Plath we now know; this is not the hard-bitten language of The Bell Jar, or of 0, the poems she wrote in the last six months of her life, which are considered to be her real masterpieces. The poem fragments of these earlier years are halting and overwritten, and the prose--she relentlessly forced herself to get down life as she perceived it--is nothing if not purple: "The wind has blown a warm yellow moon up over the sea; a bulbous moon, which sprouts in the soiled indigo sky, and spills bright winking petals of light on the quivering black water." But you can see Plath testing her experience through words, shaping it, delivering it to an audience in a way that at times seems to go beyond the usual solipsism of a journal. She is thorough and terribly precise, and novelistic in the narrating of events, so that at times a situation is d eveloped and given movement, and then ended without resolution--we have forgotten, after all, that this is a journal and not a novel.

When we're returned to the journals--after her (undocumented) suicide attempt and graduation from Smith, in full swing as a Fulbright Fellow in Cambridge, England--the themes that are to haunt her writing until her death are present and worried over, like a dog with a dishcloth. Even in her early years at Smith, Plath obsessed over whether or not she was dedicated enough, disciplined enough. In her stern lists to herself of things she must do, she always included learning German, writing more, reading more. These become, first with her entrance into the rigorous intellectual society at Cambridge and then with her subsequent marriage, more and more of a bitter self-reprimand.

As in all great romances, the entries take flight when Hughes enters the picture, but it is not a romance of the swelling-violins type. In the now- famous account of their meeting, in 1956, at a party for the literary magazine Saint Botolph's Review, Plath's first impression of Hughes is stark and spot-on: "That big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me." Huge enough, that is, to engulf her talent, her fears, her strong sexual urges. In this encounter, a very drunk Hughes ripped Plath's red headband off her head as a souvenir (in Birthday Letters, Hughes' poetic account of their marriage, Hughes insists the headband was blue, but no matter). In response, Plath, also drunk ("he was sloshing brandy in a glass and I was sloshing it at the place where my mouth was when I last knew about it"), bit him on the cheek so hard that she drew blood, but knew then that she had met her match, writing, "oh, to give myself crashing, fighting, to you."

It turns out that this cataclysmic meeting was not the real beginning of their relationship. Plath was still wildly in love with Richard Sassoon, a Frenchman she met while at Smith. After the Saint Botolph's party and a later "sleepless holocaust night with Ted in London," she fled to Paris in search of Sassoon, but not finding him, returned to England and Hughes. They were married, and there began the strange shifting of power between them. At first, Plath is quite smug about her good luck, writing, "All my pat theories against marrying a writer dissolve with Ted: his rejections more than double my sorrow & his acceptances rejoice me more than mine--it is as if he is the perfect male counterpart to my own self.... Together, we are the most faithful, creative, healthy simple couple imaginable!" Her descriptions of other people begin to gain the tart frankness we expect and remember from The Bell Jar: "a wall-eyed blond, horsy maleish woman, Breughel-nosed woman with potato features."

But in those early years of marriage, it was Hughes who was the more successful writer, winning awards and publication, and Plath struggled, doggedly sending out poetry and stories for publication and dreaming of seeing her work in The New Yorker. Oddly, it was prose that she had the highest hopes for, the poems a lesser effort. Plath took rejection hard, and fought to keep her disappointment from Hughes, to stop nagging him (although it seemed that saying anything to Hughes that he did not want to hear was included under the rubric of nagging). They warred over Hughes' perceived infidelities, spectacularly at times; of one fight she writes, "I had a sprained thumb, Ted bloody claw marks, for a week, and I remember hurling a glass with all my force across a dark room.... I got hit and saw stars."

This is not to say that Plath's journals are all pyrotechnics and bloody tooth marks. Some of it is dull, slow going: lists of things that Plath cooked; worries about money, illness. But they do make her less of an abused icon and more human in all her wild flinging from despair to giddy happiness and back again. (At one point she dryly notes, "There is an increasing market for mental-hospital stuff. I am a fool if I don't relive, recreate it.") What her journals re-create is the journey from wanting to be a writer to actually being one; her suicide--far from a theatrical act--was the terrible coda to the story of someone struggling to live in a complicated world. She didn't live to tell this story, but her journals do.