The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

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I’ve had this book sitting on my e-reader for quite some time. I think I must’ve seen it reviewed somewhere and liked the sound of it so I bought it and then it sat … and sat … and sat … waiting until I picked it up. I think I might have even tried to read it once quite some time ago and then abandoned it because life took over and I can’t for the life of me work out what it was that made me pick it up again. The time just seemed right.

And how glad I was that I dived into this book! It is one of the few books that I have read that is not only well written, well constructed and developed while at the same time being intellectually stimulating – allow me to explain: this is a true story, but it is not told in straight narrative form, rather it is composed of interviews, medical records and information and the actual story of how the author came to write this book. The mix of these elements was simply fascinating.

Now, I’m not at all scientifically minded. I am a humanities student through and through and the very thought of medical terms normally sends me into some sort of comatose trance like state from which I struggle to emerge. But this book, filled as it was with medical “stuff” had me by the proverbials and I simply couldn’t put it down. I found myself intrigued by the description of cell culturing and the experiments that led to major medical break throughs which we now overlook as ‘the norm’. I was gripped by the political aspect that lay behind all this medical lingo – the treatment of African Americans in America in the 1950s and the legal aspects of medical research in various different contexts. And over all of this, the enigma of Henrietta herself and her sister Deborah’s striking voice and the various other members of the extended family who crop up throughout this book were simply some of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered.

I loved this book. I was sad when it ended. I was sad for Henrietta’s family and indeed for the lost narrative of so many others who have contributed to science without so much as a mention. Mostly though, I have enormous respect for Skloot who has done such a wonderful job of representing Henrietta and bringing her to life in this text.

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