The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

I wasn’t sure how I would react to the very real non fiction of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot as firstly I have been very close to someone dying of cancer when I went and looked after my granddad (Granny Savidge Reads husband) during the last 7 weeks of his life three years ago and therefore I could have a rather emotional response which could be good or bad. Secondly I have never been a big fan of all things scientifical (is that a word), I was hopeless at science, not helped by the fact my Mum was dating and pregnant by my science teacher – who is now my stepdad – and taught at the school so science as a subject was a write off in my moody teenage  years and has been since on the whole. Despite all this I really, really, really wanted to read the story of Henrietta Lacks when I heard about it on the radio and though it was  full of science and made me cry it is an utterly incredible read.

I doubt any thoughts that I try and jot down on ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ will be able to do justice to the book itself but I will try my hardest. To talk about the book I am going to have to give some of true Henrietta Lacks story away but before embarking on the novel you are more than likely to know all this already. Henrietta Lacks was a woman living on the edge of constant poverty in Virginia when in 1951 she discovered she had a ‘knot’ in her body and didn’t feel right. It was soon discovered that she had cancer and though she didn’t know it, or tell anyone, initially at the time this was a devastatingly aggressive kind.

Whist undergoing her treatment some cells were taken from her cervix, she had no knowledge of this, which became the first cells which could live and thrive outside the body, and they were named the ‘immortal’ HeLa cells. What Rebecca Skloot does is not only discover just  what those cells have been used for (nuclear tests, the combating of all sorts of diseases like polio – which I only just had a jab for so made me think even further, I could go on and on but you need to read it to believe it) and how they have changed the world, she also finds out about who Henrietta Lacks was.

Skloot has clearly done hours and hours of research on the facts; looking through documents surrounding HeLa cells and passes this onto the reader without ever bombarding them with too much or showing off the level of work that has gone into this book. She also makes things like cell lines, tissue culture and genetic make up easy to digest and appeal to the layman (i.e. me) which having a BS in Biological Science I thought she might just assume we all knew what she did and she doesn’t. In fact its Skloot’s personal obsession with discovering who this woman was as well as her medical knowledge that adds a certain human something to this novel and that certain something is passion and it’s contagious.

Skloot has spent with those who knew Henrietta while she was alive and most importantly her descendants and in particular her daughter Deborah who didn’t know her mother as she was very small when she died but desperately wants to know all Skloot can find out about her. You are soon drawn into a vivid world of just what it was like for the tobacco farmers in Virginia in the early 1920’s onwards and the true, and quite unbelievable, story of one particular young woman and the family she left behind. What becomes even more shocking to the reader is not only that Henrietta had no idea what her cells would have done in the world after she had departed it but also that despite all these cells have done her family have made nothing from it, whilst companies have made millions, and can barely afford their own healthcare.  

You see there is so much in this book that it’s really, really hard to do it justice in any kind of way. It’s book that will open your eyes to some of the most important times in modern science, the not that distant injustice of racial segregation was till going on (Henrietta was on a coloured only ward) and a real life family drama that you couldn’t possibly believe isn’t fiction, but its all very real and makes for an incredibly emotional and utterly brilliant book. I cannot recommend this enough; it’s definitely one of my books of the year, if not the book of the year so far for me. It’s emotional, angering, thought provoking and mind expanding, its also incredibly readable and an important book too. Read it! 10/10

I don’t want to say anymore than that (though I could go on and on) so I won’t. Well, I will repeat that last sentence… Read it, you really need to.

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19 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, Macmillan Publishers, Rebecca Skloot, Review

19 responses to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

  1. novelinsights

    This sounds fascinating and not one I would have necessarily picked up normally but will keep my eyes peeled for it. You are so obviously passionate about it that it makes me want to go get it!

  2. I saw this reviewed on dovegrey reader’s blog last week and immediately added it to the wishlist. According to Amazon.co.uk it is being republished by Pan and comes out in paperback next February.

    • Pan and Picador are the same house now I think. I dont like the paperback cover I saw it the other day and its a bit saccarine which does nothing for me. Mind you whats in it is so brilliant it shouldnt matter, well it does a bit.

  3. gaskella

    I have this one to read. Whatever I will think of the book, it is scandalous that the Lacks family lived in poverty, while her legacy made millions.

  4. So glad you loved this, too, Simon. It’s easily my favorite nonfiction book this year!

  5. This book absolutely blew me away…it is what non-fiction is all about! I sucked at Science too, but Skloot brings it all down to a level in which anyone can understand. And break my heart! I cried and cried. I read this with my book club, and it was universally loved.

    • Your exactly right Sandy THIS is what all non fiction should be like you should be interested the whole way through and blown away by what you are taught. You should also feel like you have learnt something and maybe changed a little because of the book. This book does all this and more.

  6. Claire

    I read this recently, and thought it was one of the best non-fiction books of the year. The scientific side was fascinating, but also as interesting was the family’s search for the truth – and how hard it is to find that truth if you are black, poor and have little in the way of education…

  7. as a biology major, i studied HeLa a bit in school, so i don’t know why i haven’t read this yet… i really need to do so.

  8. I loved this book too. It’s about so many things, and really makes you feel!

  9. Pingback: Books of 2010 Part Two… « Savidge Reads

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  11. Pingback: Book notes: Politycki, Skloot, Langford & Grant | Follow the Thread

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