Justine van der Leun reopens the murder of a young American woman in South Africa, an iconic case that calls into question our understanding of truth and reconciliation, loyalty, justice, race, and class.
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 non fiction, she deserves our plaudits and our awe.
Van der Leun obsessively immerses herself in the case, combing court transcripts and police records, tracking down witnesses and friends and far-flung associates. Of the dozens of sources she finds, she grows especially close to convict-turned-advocate Easy Nofemela, who emerges as one of the most compelling figures in a story steeped in extraordinary characters and circumstances. And We Are Not Such Things—the title is taken from Nofemela’s pained response to a prosecutor’s portrayal of him and his codefendants as 'sharks smelling blood'—is an extraordinary book, if sometimes also an exhausting one: a dense and nuanced portrait of a country whose confounding, convoluted past is never quite history.
[We Are Not Such Things] could not be more timely, given how many young black South Africans are now expressing anger at — and betrayal by — the Mandela project, which they say provided nothing more than a shimmering rainbow that screened a deeper entrenchment of inequality ... where her 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 ... she crafts a close sense of place that rivals the work of Katherine Boo — although her work is at the other extreme to Boo’s, because of van der Leun’s presence within it. In a way that is increasingly fashionable, We Are Not Such Things is a personal quest, sometimes too much so.