Dame Sue Black is an internationally renowned forensic anthropologist and human anatomist. She has lived her life eye to eye with the Grim Reaper, and she writes vividly about it in this book, which is part primer on the basics of identifying human remains, part frank memoir of a woman whose first paying job as a schoolgirl was to apprentice in a butcher shop, and part no-nonsense but deeply humane introduction to the reality of death in our lives.
She recounts her first dissection; her own first acquaintance with a loved one’s death; the mortal remains in her lab and at burial sites as well as scenes of violence, murder, and criminal dismemberment; and about investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident, or natural disaster, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She uses key cases to reveal how forensic science has developed and what her work has taught her about human nature.
As is probably well established by now I love medical nonfiction so I was excited to pick this book up, especially because the publisher compares Black’s writing to Caitlin Doughty and Mary Roach. When I think of Doughty and Roach the first word that pops into mind is “funny”.
It’s unfortunate because while this book is many things, it’s not funny.
From the beginning it’s clear that Black is not a forensic pathologist, determining causes of death via autopsy, nor an overly science-y person all together. Her first job was at a butcher shop and she carried the experience forward, studying anatomy in college and becoming a forensic anthropologist concentrating on the bones of the deceased.
The first third of the book reads like a memoir. In addition to telling us about her start in the field Black muses on the nature of death, the meaning of identity, and discusses the last days of three family members in great detail. There’s nothing wrong with this per ce, but it’s a hundred pages in the front that’s completely separated from what I thought I was getting – crime! Analyzing bones! Maybe some gory stuff! If you don’t know what’s coming you may be tempted to give up here.
Around a third of the way in we finally get into some cases and the narrative takes off. A lot of Black’s work revolves around disaster victim identification, or DVI. She has gone all around the world to help return those killed in war or disaster to their loved ones, from Kosovo to Thailand. As you can guess she sees the aftermath of horrific events, and the stories are quite touching (as well as possibly triggering, fair warning). I love that she talks about the cognitive and emotional difficulties of the job and the strategies she uses for her own mental health.
Luckily not every case is heartbreaking in the here and now. Black was on a BBC show where, along with a team of fellow scientists, they examined remains of people who lived hundreds of years ago in an effort to figure out who they were and how they died. She speaks of the interesting people she meets as part of her work in a university anatomy department, and delicate but not awful experiences like giving a potential full body donor a tour of the cadaver lab in use. And there are some stories from court, including the surreal experience of giving testimony and having no idea what to expect from either the prosecution or the defense.
I admire the work that Black has done over the years, from teaching to disaster response, from the BBC show to founding an anatomy lab. She also gets love because she shouts out the interpreters her team worked in with Kosovo and recognizes to the mental and emotional toll of communicating the words of those who have been through such horrors.
But when it comes down to it the book is split into two parts – memoir and philosophy in the first 100 pages, and your standard forensic nonfiction in the rest. The accounts of her parents’ deaths can be skipped over completely with no loss, so I wonder why they’re given so many pages in the first place.
The last two thirds make for a solid, but not outstanding, addition to a shelf about death. Just know that you can gloss over the aforementioned sections and you won’t miss a thing.
Thanks to Arcade and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.