WE ARE NOT SUCH THINGS by Justine van der Leun


The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation
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Unraveling a web of evidence in a notorious murder.

After moving to South Africa for her husband’s work, van der Leun (Marcus of Umbria: What an Italian Dog Taught an American Girl About Love, 2010) became fascinated by the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar who was brutally murdered—stoned and stabbed—in Cape Town in 1993. Four years later, with apartheid ended, the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation program was put in place. This “experiment in restorative justice” offered “release and a clean slate to those, who, upon taking responsibility, fully, and honestly, for their apartheid-era crimes, could prove that their misdeeds were politically motivated.” Among those who came forward were two men convicted for Amy’s murder, and prominent among those who forgave were Amy’s parents. The Biehls set up a foundation in Amy’s name to further the study of democracy and gender rights, and they gave jobs to the two men whom they embraced. The author’s initial interest was the Biehls, whose gesture made them celebrities in South Africa and the U.S. She wanted to understand how they could forgive—and forge a close relationship with—the murderers. But soon her focus shifted to the crime itself, which seemed to be far more complicated than what she gleaned from official documents. She repeatedly interviewed Easy, the most voluble of the convicted men, retracing the events leading to Amy’s death, Easy’s youth, and the volatile politics of the time. “I felt like a kid who wants to hear the same bedtime story again and again: for comfort, or to better understand, or maybe hoping that this time some detail would shift to reveal a new, improved tale,” she writes. Unfortunately, reiterating the story over and over results in a tedious narrative and revelations less surprising than she implies.

The author’s vivid details of South Africa’s persistent racism, abject poverty, and continuing oppression are undermined by unnecessary repetition.

Pub Date: June 28th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9450-6
Page count: 544pp
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2016


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