When one surfaces channels on television, one is almost always gifted a nice surprise by what we discover by chance. Recently, while sifting through the bouquet of channels on my television set I was entranced by a fascinating conversation on BBC’s Hardtalk program between Stephen Sackur and Professor Dame Sue Black, the renowned anthropological forensic scientist. This conversation eventually led me to her incredibly brilliant autobiography - “All That Remains - A Life in Death”.
One could be forgiven for thinking that any book on death must necessarily be morbid, somber and dead serious (pun unintended). Also one may be forgiven for thinking that a book on the life of a forensic scientist must be full of technical jargon beyond the understanding of the common reader. However, Sue Black happily proves us wrong on both counts. Indeed, here is a good example of how an autobiography should be written - with flair and a candidness that is charming and persuasive.
Death is the only certainty a person can be sure of once he is born, and it is almost always, described in dark, dour and grim terms. But here is a person who approaches life and death with a lightness of heart while not letting up on the seriousness of her profession; she successfully blends a balanced approach to both life and death.
Born into a hard-working Presbyterian Scottish family, little Sue, aged 12, began to spend all her Saturdays and school holidays “up to my elbows in muscle, bone, blood and viscera” working at the village butcher’s shop. From such humble and tough beginnings, (“I learned that when your hands are cold - and they always seemed to be cold in a butcher’s shop - you look forward to the delivery of fresh livers, still warm from the abattoir. For a fleeting moment, when you dipped your hands into the box, you could feel them again, thanks to the warm cow’s blood de-icing your own.”) She went on to study Biology at the University of Aberdeen and become completely absorbed in the world of dissecting cadavers which would eventually lead her to become one of the world’s leading and most respected forensic anthropologists who has cracked some of the most intriguing cases of murder, genocide and deaths from natural disasters.
Black writes extensively on several approaches to dying and death but in doing so, she writes with great lucidity and clarity and at no moment does the writing become pedantic and heavy handed. In fact, she uses her uncanny sense of humor to make light of an issue that most of us even dread to talk about. Take this as an example: “To understand the roots of the fear of death, we may need to unpack it into three stages: dying, death and being dead. Being dead is probably the least bothersome as most of us accept that this is not something from which you recover and that worrying about the inevitable is somewhat futile.” Or take another example when she writes about her dearest grandmother’s passing away, “She was such a staunch believer in a life after death that I almost wished she would come back and tell me what it was like. Sadly, she never has.”
Where the book really comes alive and leaves an indelible mark in the reader’s mind is when Black describes her work in Kosovo in the late nineties of the last century. Her knowledge and expertise was sought in Kosovo and she was the lead anthropologist for the British Forensic Team’s work that undertook the investigations into the war crimes that brought the perpetrators, of one of the worst cases of human genocide known in modern history, to justice. Her description of how the bodies were identified and the crimes unraveled makes for bone chilling reading that would have been the envy of any crime-thriller writer. Reading this chapter left me awash with grief at what man can do to man and left me in sheer awe of people, like Sue Black, who work behind scenes to bring the criminals to justice. Equally engrossing was her work in Thailand after the Tsunami of 2004. She was one of the first forensic scientists to travel to Thailand to assist in identifying the dead. Her work was not only socially and culturally important and crucial in bringing about a closure to many doubts and concerns of innumerable families; but her work in Thailand also shows up the compassionate face of science.
This is a truly captivating autobiography of one of the leading practitioners of her art in the world. Written with compassion, humor and adequate gravitas, this book is warmly recommended. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if there is only one non-fiction book you are going to read this year then it must be Sue Black’s “All That Remains.”
Review By :Sunirmal Chakravarthi
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