Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

All that lives must die

All that lives must die
'Autopsy' by Ryan Blumenthal (Publisher: Jonathan Ball Publishing)

‘It felt a bit strange taking the book Autopsy by Ryan Blumenthal to bed at night, with its promises to regale me of life in the trenches with a forensic pathologist in Africa,’ says Amy Heynderych. Here is her dive into the book.

“Thou know’st ’tis common.
All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.” – Hamlet

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a year characterised by an acute awareness of death. Every moment we exhaustedly connect to another Zoom call or pull on a misshapen mask, it looms behind us like a shadow, reminding us of what we are trying to avoid.

With that in mind, it felt a bit strange taking the book Autopsy by Ryan Blumenthal to bed at night, with its promises to regale me of life in the trenches with a forensic pathologist in Africa. Yet it became clear from the early pages that this wasn’t a grisly retelling of the many ways to die in Africa, but an exploration of what kills us, and the central role forensic pathologists play in delivering justice.

As a writer of crime fiction, I have an innate interest in the physical details of a crime scene. Through planting certain clues and physical pieces of evidence, I can tell a story. Blumenthal’s job is much more difficult, and quite the opposite: he studies the most minute fragments of physical evidence to piece together a story, often in the hopes of catching a criminal.

Blumenthal himself comes across as a Sherlock Holmes-type maverick, saying: “By the time I greet someone, I already have an image in my forensic mind’s eye, of their general health, their mindset and the risks they take.” This inquisitive nature propels us through the narrative as he muses, “Both the dead and the living have a lot to teach us.”

Autopsy covers a dizzying range of stories and petrifyingly unique African ways to die including, but not limited to, deaths by thunderstorms, wild animal attacks, or transport-related deaths, with cars hitting creatures from donkeys to hippopotami. Blumenthal answers the questions that the average person may be too polite to ask: what is the most painless way to die? Or even, how would a person murder another without being caught? The answers are often surprising.

Dark content aside, I felt the book oddly poetic. Blumenthal has a deep respect for death, and the life lived before a person succumbed. Many cases are woven with the aftermath of a death, as he describes the grieving members on the scene, or the lonely lack thereof. The book is hopeful too, as we learn about the dangerous, exhausting lengths forensic pathologists go to in order to deliver justice, often with limited funding and resources. African forensic pathologists, like the people they serve, face each day with immense resilience.

In living through the year 2020, we have as a society combated the despair and meaninglessness of a world where everything we know is taken away. Every person has weighed up one risk against another, buckling under the knowledge that one misstep, one reckless trip to the shops or unsanitised coffee cup could end up in a Covid-19 diagnosis, a ventilator, an isolated hospital bed. Autopsy is a similar reminder that death is, indeed, omnipresent. No matter how healthy we feel, it will one day be our turn. If looked at the right way, this fact is heartening.

To paraphrase Blumenthal, the world is hurtling through space, bound eventually to evaporate when our sun expands and explodes. Yet we are all here, on this rock, at this specific point in time. It would be a waste not to spend every moment we have on the people and passions we love. DM/ML

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