EVENT REVIEW: Professor Dame Sue Black: All That Remains: A Life in Death

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7th October, 2018

Palace Green Library

Review by Leonor Mozo Alonso

When Sue Black takes the stage and starts talking, it looks as though it’s going to be a chilled interview. Her inherent friendliness and sense of humour prevail even when she talks about her “natural” transition from butchering animals to dissecting human beings: an occupation that she considers not half as bad as coming across a rodent (of which she is terrified). Sue is one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, and therefore surrounded by dead people all day long. ‘[My grandma] used to say that death walked with her’, she says, as she explains their relationship and how she inherited her vision of death.

Considering Sue’s occupation, one would expect her new book All That Remains: A Life in Death, to be a scientific, technical book with plenty of references to the study of skeletons. However, she has decided to make more of an autobiographical book, which uses well-chosen adjectives to add lyricism to the text and appeal directly to her readers’ emotions. She talks about her grandma’s mysticism, the death of her mother and the relationship of her own daughters with death. She talks about the first body she dissected as a student, making quite gruesome (yet always respectful analogies) between human flesh and food. And on top of that, she talks about what her job really means. ‘What we’re interested in as anthropologists is that when a body is found, we don’t know who that person was and [we have to] try to read the history of their mind within their body. […] We build a picture of their minds that helps us to identify who they might have been’.

When finding bodies in extremely poor conditions, the identification of the person is the aim. Once it is found, the next and most crucial step is to communicate it to their families. There is always a liaison person, she explains, because forensic anthropologists are usually not prepared to deal with grief; they stick to science and facts. But it seems particularly unavoidable in her job to completely separate personal and work life.

This becomes even more apparent when the chair (New Writing North’s Claire Malcolm) asks her about Kosovo. Sue was unexpectedly sent there during the war, and her experiences are captured in her new book. She opens the copy that she is carrying and starts reading a couple of paragraphs which describe the scene that she found when she first got there. There is no more place for humour here. Just a couple of paragraphs and I start feeling a void in my chest. The scene is horrifying: piles of decomposing dead bodies being eaten by animals, soldiers in dreadful conditions, all described in vivid detail. Sue does not want to scare or desensitize her readers; she just doesn’t want to leave anything out. She presents her experiences in her job and with death as pure and sometimes brutal as she lives them. ‘Death teaches you more about living that it teaches you about death’, she says, and her book is just that: what she learnt about life while being surrounded by death.

When asked about how she feels now about her own death, Sue gives an unusual response. ‘I can’t wait’, she says, expressing her curiosity to know what it feels like. Curious, brave, humorous and emotional – that is Sue Black, and that is what is captured in All that Remains, the book by the forensic anthropologist who could not bear to see a mouse.

This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.