Tuesday, June 28, 2016

We Are Not Such Things

We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun
Random House: 6/28/16
eBook review copy; 544 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780812994506

We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun is a very highly recommended account of the story behind the headline. During the last days of apartheid, on August 25, 1993, Amy Biehl, a 26 year old white American Fullbright scholar, women's rights advocate, and anti-apartheid activist, was murdered by a mob in Cape Town, South Africa. Four young black men were convicted for the crime. 

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation program was put in place four years later - once apartheid was officially over. The Truth and Reconciliation program was an experiment in restorative justice and offered release from prison and a clean slate to anyone who took full responsibility for their crimes and could also prove that their crimes were politically motivated. Two men who were convicted for Amy's murder were released under this program. Amy's parents publicly forgave those involved with Amy's murder and started a foundation carrying Amy's name. The foundation even gave the men who were released jobs.

Van der Leun, who was initially interested first in how the forgiveness in the Reconciliation program affected real individuals, later became intrigued by the discrepancies surrounding Amy Biehl's murder. Even though it had been twenty years since the tragedy, she decided to dig deeper, and meet the people involved. She wanted to uncover the real story and ended up forging relationships with several men involved. She also presents background information and history of the colonial legacies present in South Africa. Many of the events started years ago are what lead to the huge gulf between blacks and whites that continue to this day.

We Are Not Such Things is a fascinating, well-researched look into a specific highly publicized murder case. Van der Leun makes it clear that there are still issues between the races today in South Africa. It becomes abundantly clear that the governmental systems in South Africa are broken, or extremely dysfunctional, which made getting information or trying to research difficult.  She also asks some difficult questions and uncovers questions about the true story of Amy Biehl's murder.

I was totally immersed in this story. It is about a murder, and van der Leun thought it was going to answer the question, "How could the Biehls forgive their daughter's murderers?" and address their celebrity status over their forgiveness. But then it evolved into a story about South Africa - its social problems and people. I could see where some repetition of what people said could be bothersome to some readers but I didn't have a problem with it. It seemed to reflect what she was experiencing or being told by people she was talking to, the repeating of a story, right or wrong, without question. It took many interviews and questions to uncover a glimmer of the truth.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.

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