... a compelling and well-researched dual biography ... parts of this truly astounding tale are best left for the reader to discover, then reread in disbelief. At times, this can be horrifying, but it feels vital that we bear witness — and Hallman handles these moments of intimate suffering in a way that never comes across as exploitative ... To help give Anarcha a voice, Hallman draws on first-person accounts of formerly enslaved people. This is an effective device; while we know that we are not reading Anarcha’s actual words or thoughts, she comes alive ... The book is packed with detail and the subject matter is treated with due seriousness; the stories of Anarcha and Sims flow. That said, it is not perfect: Comets and falling stars are a pat recurring trope that repeatedly emphasizes the interconnection of the stories and grows to feel heavy-handed. But this is a small quibble. Say Anarcha is an important book and deserves to be widely read, especially by those in medicine.
Double biographies are fairly unusual and tend to be about people who were linked together in the minds of their contemporaries. But Anarcha was not associated with Sims in the public mind because Sims took great pains to ensure that she would not be—not because of any shame he felt about exploiting an enslaved woman but because the recurrence of her fistulas belied Sims’s narrative. Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care.
Truman Capote referred to works like Say Anarcha as nonfiction novels. Hallman uses that material and much more to write a broad if complicated narrative rich in detail about the times and world in which Sims lived ... Readers could sometimes find this work difficult to follow...The author uses the meteor shower of 1833, the comet of 1835, and other astronomical events as metaphors ... Anarcha is a ghost, hardly any record of her exists beyond Sims’ writings. Hallman’s research has turned up much of what else survives with the rest coming from guesswork and presumption to tell a story around the lives of the real Anarcha and Sims.