I’ve been dipping in and out of various non-fiction titles and short stories over the summer. I suppose I’ve been a bit of a butterfly, swooping from flower to flower, not settling for long to read one thing. That was until I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skoot.
I bought it in a second-hand bookshop for a £1 on a whim, the title being vaguely familiar from listening to a Radio Four podcast. I’m so glad I did. This is a truly extraordinary book that I urge you to read. As many have said, it’s as gripping as any novel I’ve ever read, perhaps more so because of the shocking truths within it. I’m not a scientist – I scraped through Single Science at school and am sometimes embarrassed by how much I don’t know – so reading a book like this was an education for me. I knew nothing about the questionable ethics and extraordinary weirdness of the early days of cell culture research, and I certainly didn’t know the name Henrietta Lacks.
She was a black woman, born in Virginia in 1920. She was born into tobacco farming, and lived in an old cabin that once housed slaves. She lived through the worst poverty and deep discrimination of America in the first half of the 20th century, and died of ovarian cancer at the age of 31. Her doctor took a sample of her cancer cells – most probably without her consent – and these cells were the first to continue to live and grow outside the human body for any considerable length of time. They still live and grow now, in laboratories all over the world. Her cells have led to a string of vitally important scientific discoveries, and made a huge impact in cancer research. Henrietta’s cells are bought and sold by biomedical companies, and for a long time her surviving family had no idea.
Perhaps the best thing about this very special book is how sensitively Rebecca Skoot portrays the Lacks family. She took a lot of time to get to know them and earn their trust. She clearly felt a sincere affection for Henrietta’s surviving daughter, Deborah, whose warmth and eccentricity drives the narrative forward in the second half of the book. This book isn’t just about science – it’s about a family who have been treated very unfairly. Deborah carries the mental and physical scars of this, haunted by the trauma of the medical profession’s mistreatment of her family, though still fiercely proud of the contribution her mother’s cells have made to the world. Rebecca Skoot transcribes word for word what she is told by Deborah and other members of the Lacks family, so that their story is enriched by their own lively dialect. I love the image of Deborah – an uneducated woman who craves knowledge – clinging to her dictionary, falling asleep at her computer as she learns to Google information about her mother. Deborah’s spirit is extraordinary.
This book is meticulously structured and the twists and turns of this real-life epic story are very affecting. This book is a real master class for writers in choosing the perfect moment to make the next revelation. I wonder if so many extraordinary twists would test the credulity of the reader if this was fiction – for there are so many moments that are emotionally arresting and surprising. I think the reader is carried by a narrative if they care about the characters, though, and you will care about Skoot’s ‘characters’ – Henrietta herself, her children, her grandchildren. You will care about her legacy. Skoot has clearly carefully considered the order of her chapters, her timeline – and by the end you have felt the decades of this extraordinary story.