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We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation Hardcover – June 28, 2016
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“We Are Not Such Things overturns the conventional narrative of [Amy] Biehl’s murder by trying to establish what actually happened, and by examining its effects, over two decades, on the people involved. In this way, its publication could not be more timely, given how many young black South Africans are now expressing anger at—and betrayal by—the Mandela project. . . . Where [Justine van der Leun’s] book is gripping, explosive even, is in the kind of obsessive forensic investigation—of the clues, and into the soul of society—that is the legacy of highbrow sleuths from Truman Capote to Janet Malcolm. . . . [Van der Leun] can write superbly, and . . . she crafts a close sense of place that rivals the work of Katherine Boo. . . . She is deeply compelling as a sleuth and social observer: The book becomes a page turner. . . . The reader leaves it, as one does any well-wrought mystery, with precisely the author’s own sense that truth resides in the failure to find it.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Engaging . . . part whodunnit and part travelogue . . . a deeply researched and thought-provoking book . . . with some penetrating insights.”—The Economist
“[Van der] Leun probes the characterization of [Amy] Biehl as a martyr to the cause of black South African liberation, and examines the murder, the trials, and the afterlives of witnesses, detectives, and the accused. She displays exquisite insights into the inner lives of those involved, the erasure of shameful histories, and the stresses of absolution without accountability.”—The New Yorker
“Extraordinary . . . Justine van der Leun’s account of a South African murder is destined to be a classic. . . . Van der Leun stays with the story, all of it, and crafts a narrative both fuller and more intimate than the one the world was told. She takes nothing away from Amy, whose murder was horrific. But she impresses upon the reader that no one life or death is worth more than another. For this, and for writing a masterpiece of reported nonfiction, she deserves our plaudits and our awe.”—Newsday
“A 1993 killing sheds light on the complexities of modern South Africa.”—The New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice
“Unforgettable . . . a gripping narrative that examines the messiness of truth, the illusory nature of reconciliation, [and] the all too often false promise of justice.”—The Boston Globe
“Compelling . . . [van der Leun] has a resident’s wry familiarity with the jangling contradictions of a country in which shopping malls sit side by side with shantytowns, while retaining an outsider’s unsentimental perspective on its ongoing racial tensions, and a bracing scepticism about the rhetoric of liberation. [Her] hard-nosed reconstruction of an alternative narrative . . . raises troubling, and still pertinent, questions about the deals that sometimes have to be struck by former enemies when faced with the exigencies of nation-building.”—The Guardian
“Gripping . . . Van der Leun recounts in her nuanced but unforgiving style . . . a Truman Capote–style detective story. . . . Beautifully written and carefully observed, some readers might actually wish it were longer. In the end, it manages to perform that rare alchemy of transforming the particular into something more universal.”—Financial Times
“Moving . . . a very necessary and occasionally confounding account of a small slice of post-apartheid, post-Mandela South Africa, a country that has largely been forgotten in the international maelstrom of terrorism and mass migration. It is a story of frustrated expectations, broken dreams, endemic greed and corruption, but also indomitable human spirit, told against the backdrop of one of the world’s most beautiful natural settings.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“In this gripping narrative, van de Leun provides a first-person account of her attempts to investigate the contradictory stories about Biehl’s death, and also probes what the myths about this episode convey about contemporary South Africa.”—The National Book Review
“Powerful . . . [a] stunning portrait of a country.”—Library Journal
“[A] tour de force . . . Amid the suspense of her investigation, van der Leun skillfully weaves in glimpses into contemporary South Africa, delving into issues such as the systemic disenfranchisements caused by apartheid, the colonial legacies of the British and the Dutch, rampant police brutality, government ineptitude, and the myriad issues that the country now faces in a fractured system. . . . Van der Leun succeeds in telling a complex, nuanced, and perhaps ultimately unknowable story that will captivate all readers.”—Publishers Weekly
“An extraordinary book . . . [a] nuanced portrait of a country whose confounding, convoluted past is never quite history.”—Entertainment Weekly
“A fascinating case study, a feat of investigative journalism that offers entrée into the impossibly murky potage of present-day South African national dynamics. It’s also, I was pleased to discover, a total page-turner, a gripping Serial-like true-crime story.”—Vogue
“This suspenseful and engrossing story calls into question the simplicities people yearn for when justice is sought for a vicious crime. Justine van der Leun shows how a powerful desire for reconciliation can in fact obscure the truth, a truth we need in order to establish the equity and justice that all people deserve.”—Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black
“What an achievement! This absorbing account of the pursuit of the truth about an infamous and symbolic crime is consummate in its reach and penetration. The great undying issues in moral forensics are here: forgiveness, reparation, restorative justice, the role of untruth. The human portraiture, the included capsules of relevant history, the evocation of real life in the townships of the Cape—all are superbly done. The word brilliant applies to all aspects of the book. This unsparing but compassionate work will enlighten and shake its readers.”—Norman Rush, author of Mating
“This is a murder story told with the dramatic tension of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the precision of the very best nonfiction reporting. Justine van der Leun obsessively investigated the killing of twenty-six-year-old American Amy Biehl during the waning days of South African apartheid. Van der Leun takes her readers on hair-raising excursions into the mazes of backyard shacks where Biehl’s killers were raised and into the often-absurd world of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Each page bursts with fresh insights into the contradictions of modern-day South Africa as well as the elusiveness of finding the absolute truth.”—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy and Logavina Street
“Justine van der Leun’s We Are Not Such Things is a fascinating, clear-eyed journey into the disheartening political reality of contemporary South Africa. In her pursuit of the facts behind a decades-old murder, she shatters convenient narratives about the end of apartheid and the nature of justice, and proceeds on a headlong chase for deeper truths, even those that recede the closer she gets to them. Along the way, she lays bare the relationship between legal and political truths, and takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride into the depths of the reporting process itself, exposing both the perils, and the necessity, of truth-seeking.”—Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside
“This is a troubling, deeply felt piece of work. Van der Leun’s excellent reportage reveals that things are not what they seem in South Africa. The book is proof that apartheid has left behind a league of ghosts, Amy Biehl among them, and that the South Africa that Nelson Mandela envisioned remains a distant dream.”—James McBride, author of Kill ’Em and Leave
“We Are Not Such Things grants the reader an extraordinary and profound privilege: the capacity to inhabit fully a place, a history, a moment, a human heart. This is not just fine journalism but astonishing storytelling, and it is why we read. Justine van der Leun brings to the page a rare combination of muscular reporting, limitless curiosity, soulful vision, courage, and tenderness. She ceaselessly questions both herself and others. Through her gifts, you will feel as if you have traveled deep into a country you only thought you knew—South Africa—and become intimate with people in their most vulnerable, strange, and beautiful moments. Like all the most impactful journeys one undertakes in life, you won’t want to let go of this one, ever.”—Jeff Hobbs, author of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
About the Author
Justine van der Leun is the author of the travel memoir Marcus of Umbria. She has written about South Africa for Harper’s and The Guardian. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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The story is about author Justine van der Leun’s quest to get to the bottom of what really happened the day Amy Biehl, an American student on a Fullbright scholarship in South Africa, was killed by an angry mob in a township near Cape Town in 1993 – during that period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president when the threat of civil war loomed over South Africa.
If you’re interested in that long-ago story, this book will bring it back in all its detail. But it’s more than that. I would say it’s one of the best portraits of life in a South African township that I’ve read. In the course of her investigation, Justine gets to know the main players on that fateful day and forges an especially close bond with one of the men who pleaded guilty to Amy’s murder, Easy Nofemala. Through Easy, Justine gets to meet other witnesses on frequent visits to Gugulethu and surroundings.
The deeper she digs, the more confusing it gets. Did Easy and the other accused really commit the crime? Were they wrongfully convicted, and if so, why is it so hard to get to the truth? To me, these visits revealing the convoluted relationships between the different characters of that story and their even more convoluted relationship to the truth are the real gem in her book.
It is somewhat unsatisfying that when you turn the last page, you have no idea what really happened that day in 1993. If your sole goal in reading the book is to find out what happened, don’t read it, you’ll be disappointed. I think the publisher wasn’t quite honest in pushing exactly that narrative, and this is one reason I don’t think the book is worth 5 stars.
However, it is a fascinating portrait of one of the many faces of South Africa.