Helen Bamber, A Life Against Cruelty
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The rather unorthodox biography of Helen Bamber, a British woman who has devoted her life to supporting the welfare of international victims of torture. In his first book, Belton, an editor at Granta Books, begins Bamber’s story by describing the plight of the Northumberland Fusiliers, a machine-gun battalion captured at the fall of Singapore in 1942. The tremendous physical and emotional trauma suffered by the veterans during the war was heightened upon their return by the sense that British society was unable to acknowledge their suffering. Years later, it was Bamber who began the healing process by listening to the men describe their experiences. What makes this biography unique is that Belton himself employs this listening tactic: Throughout much of the book, he fills in the outline of Bamber’s life with accounts by those who have come into contact with her, as well as with historical chronicles of events through which she lived. Bamber’s presence in the work is that of a witness who is able to retain a sense of humanity in the face of absolute human degradation by allowing victims of torture to give voice to whatever has befallen them. Evidently, her entire career was shaped by her experience as a member of the Jewish Relief Unit sent to the concentration camp at Belsen to coordinate aid to emancipated Jews shortly after WWII. There she gained an understanding of the power of testimony to induce healing. After almost 20 years as a leader in Amnesty International, Bamber was appointed director of the Medical Foundation for the Treatment of Victims of Torture, where, now in her 70s, she continues to carry on her work. A complicated tangle of bleak historical moments and traumatic personal narratives, surprisingly converging into the life story of a compassionate and highly moral woman.

Pub Date: April 16th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40100-8
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999