- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (June 28, 2016)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0812994507
- ISBN-13: 978-0812994506
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 69 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #792,004 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Other Sellers on Amazon
+ $3.99 shipping
+ $3.99 shipping
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
|New from||Used from|
See the Best Books of 2018 So Far
Looking for something great to read? Browse our editors' picks for the best books of the year so far in fiction, nonfiction, mysteries, children's books, and much more.
Frequently bought together
Customers who bought this item also bought
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
The author, an American visiting South Africa with her SA-born husband, manages to get under the skin of South Africa, below the apparent truths, specifically of a particular event at a particular time in the country’s history - the senseless, non-political, brutal murder by a mob, of Amy Biehl, an idealistic 26-year-old American woman who was working for a better South Africa for people of color and especially women, during the transition to black rule under Nelson Mandela. In August 1993, the month of Amy’s murder, the country was on fire.
Some of the descriptions of violence, including the actual murder of Ms Biehl are profoundly disturbing on many levels. The author captures the mood of the times and of the mobs. In addition, through her descriptions of the real-life characters in the book, she paints an accurately wrenching picture of the often grinding misery, depradation, struggles, and everyday violence and death that was and is life in the ‘non-white’ townships – among the many consequences and legacies of apartheid. Into the story the author weaves South African history for context, and discusses the Truth & Reconciliation Commission – its purposes and complex outcomes for different individuals.
To read this book as a former South African is to be catapulted back into the turmoil and hate and incomprehensible brutality and injustices of apartheid, that led so many of us to leave; but also into present-day South Africa, 22 years after Mandela’s ANC came to power. One of the author’s astute observations about current South Africa was this, in reference to an episode of road rage she experienced: “…South Africans were outraged – about race relations, corruption, ineptitude, money, class, politics. Beneath a thin veneer of good manners, the whole society was teeming with tension and entitlement, where people packed pistols and where everyone was perceived as either a potential perpetrator or a potential victim. Perhaps for these reasons, and because the cops rarely enforced traffic laws and took bribes South Africans were notoriously aggressive, reckless drivers.”
Unfortunately, one has to dig through a lot of dross to get to a nugget like that, because the book is way way too long - unnecessarily so - and reading it was an exercise in frustration and exasperation.
First, it oversells itself on the central topic. It presents itself as having unearthed major new truths about the day and circumstances of Amy Biehl’s death. The reader keeps wondering, 'OK, where is the meat, when will she cut to the chase?' So, it turns out - after much broad hinting along the way - that one of the guys who claimed to have taken part in the killing of Ms Biehl turned out to have confessed in order to protect / cover for his younger brother, who was in fact one of the killers. And - earlier that same day in a township nearby, there was a brutal attack on a white man, a city electrical worker, by some of the same mob, an event barely reported until now. The author tracks down this history and the individual himself, a man who is white, but yet another casualty of apartheid. While the story and journey of discovery are of interest, now, almost 25 yrs later they are not discoveries of consequence. No-one will be charged or released.
While the author did indeed go to enormous lengths to uncover heretofore unknown facts, unfortunately she presents every detail (so it seems) of her journey of discovery with mind-numbingly excessive detail and repetition. Repeated visits to the townships, repeated and endlessly detailed descriptions of the townships (just a few would have sufficed), non-pertinent details of peoples’ lives and relationships, clothes, furniture, living rooms, where people hang the pictures on the walls in the townships, etc. Proper editing should have reduced this book in length by some 50%, and its impact would have been that much greater. Decent editing would have also picked up some errors of fact and sloppy sentences – though these are minor comments in the overall scheme of things.
In addition, the author comes across as mean-spirited about a central figure in the book – Amy’s mother, Linda Biehl. Linda Biehl is woman whose daughter – educated, smart, humble, gracious, idealistic, spirited, committed, accomplished - was murdered at the age of 26 years in a horrific, gratuitously brutal manner by a mindless mob, for the crime of being a white person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine being the parent of a young woman who is bludgeoned and stabbed to death – a half a world away from your family’s world in California. Yet Linda and Peter Biehl and their family journeyed frequently to South Africa, and repeatedly and consistently acted with grace and kindness and a generosity of spirit and forgiving and financial donation. They learned about the country and its complex history and problems. They reached out to Amy’s killers, forgave them, employed them, set up the Amy Biehl Foundation in Amy’s memory to honor her ideals, to try and continue her work. While acknowledging the facts of all this, the author often writes disparagingly of Linda Biehl’s demeanor and appearance, the author displaying her impatience / suspicion of Linda; in effect, the author second-guesses the grief, motivation and coping mechanisms of a bereaved parent. Linda then suffers another loss when her husband Peter dies at the age of 59 of colon cancer.
Compared with her attitude toward Linda Biehl, in some ways the author appears to show greater affinity and affection for some of the shady characters and killers in her story. She has osmosed the South African condition, and evinces it.
Eric Hassall MD
San Francisco, CA
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.