Picks and Pans Review: Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder

updated 10/06/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Melanie Thernstrom

In May 1995, Sinedu Tadesse, an Ethiopian-born Harvard College junior, stabbed her sleeping roommate Trang Phuong Ho, a Vietnamese refugee and popular premed student, then hanged herself in the bathroom of their dormitory suite. In Halfway Heaven, Melanie Thernstrom—who had briefly met Sinedu while teaching writing at Harvard—attempts to make sense of the crime, to compare the two young women and their backgrounds and to fathom how the isolated girl could have spiraled down, apparently unnoticed, into madness and violence. The passages from Sinedu's journal—cries of unalloyed anguish and psychotically misguided self-improvement schemes—are horrifi-cally compelling. But too much of the book is spent detailing Thernstrom's efforts to wrest information from Sinedu's family, whom she visited in Ethiopia, and from the equally guarded Harvard administrators, who, in their unfeeling, punitive treatment of troubled students, are made to seem almost as culpable as the unfortunate Sinedu family. Finally, Thernstrom fails to synthesize the available facts into a deeper understanding. In the end, this tragic case remains as mysterious and fascinating as the first appalling stories that emerged from that blood-splattered dormitory room. (Double-day $23.95)

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