With over half of us away on holiday, it was a select group of four who met to christen our lovely new meeting venue, the First Class Passenger Lounge on Berwick Station, and to discuss our September book choice, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Here’s what the back cover blurb says:
‘Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells — taken without her knowledge — became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . .
Rebecca Skloot’s fascinating account is the story of the life, and afterlife, of one woman who changed the medical world forever. Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.’
Berwick Book Group members were, for once, in unanimous agreement with the critics in their praise of this non-fiction book. Hilary Mantel describes it as ‘A fascinating, harrowing, necessary book’ and we certainly felt that Henrietta’s story – and the saga of the HeLa cells – needed to be told. The subject and the facts were fascinating in themselves, but this book was much more than a story of medical discovery; it was also a depiction of racism, poverty and injustice, and a very personal portrait of a daughter’s grief over the loss of a mother she never had the chance to know.
We discussed the book itself first. Although non-fiction we thought it read like a novel. It was written in scenes, with drama, narrative tension and gripping character portrayals. The author – and her research journey – were part of the book and this brought an emotional depth to the writing. It was a book of two parts – the first the story of the mother and what happened to her cells after her death, the second part belonged to Deborah, the grieving daughter trying to connect with her mother.
Things that particularly stood out for us:
A relation of Henrietta Lacks, just before he went under the anaesthetic for a heart bypass, was told how much Henrietta had contributed to medical science. When he woke up, he was thousands of dollars in debt because he could not afford health insurance.
The description of Henrietta in her medical records – ‘well-nourished, cooperative’ – which sounded like a description in a slave auction catalogue.
The minor medical characters with absolutely no ethics or morals – Carrell, eugenicist and lunatic, and Southam, injecting patients with cancer cells to see what happened – and, more shockingly, with no system of controls to limit what they did.
One concern some of us had was the way very personal and confidential medical records were used in the book. Even though the author had the family’s consent, it could still be seen as intrusive and even exploitative – although everyone agreed that the author’s intentions were entirely honourable and the story needed to be told.
Observations from members included:
Only in America could a multi-billion dollar industry be created out of this personal tragedy. One of the factors is the lack of freedom of information there.
The UK is not pristine in these matters of medical ethics. Alder Hay was cited as an example.
After reading about the public wards in American hospitals, thank God for the NHS!
Finally, book recommendations from members:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray
Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin
Thin Air by Ann Cleeves
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce