I don’t read much non-fiction, but so many people raved about this book that it became impossible to ignore it. Sandy persuaded me to get the audio book version* and I’m so pleased that she did because I think it added an extra dimension to the text – the narration was fantastic and the different accents brought the story to life.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman who died from cervical cancer in 1951. Shortly before her death a sample of cells was taken from her cervix and then used, without her permission, for scientific research. At the time cell culture was in its infancy and scientists found it very hard to keep cells alive in culture, but for some reason Henrietta’s cells were different – they divided quickly and easily. These cells revolutionised cell research. They became known as the HeLa line and were used by scientists around the world to find cures for a host of different diseases. This book explained how the Lacks family discovered that the cells existed and their search for the truth about how billions of dollars of wealth were created from them without the family receiving a penny.
The book gives a fascinating insight into the life of a family struggling to cope with the loss of their mother, whilst at the same time having to cope with the fact that a part of her lives on in test tubes around the world. I found the initial explanations of events to be gripping, but by disc 6 (out of 10) I was beginning to get a little bored. I felt I knew exactly what was going to happen next and found that things were beginning to be over-explained. The downfall of many non-fiction books is that they include too much unnecessary detail for me and although I appreciate that completeness is sometimes needed I felt that much of the last half of the book could have been left out. I wasn’t interested in the word-for-word transcripts of every phone call that took place between Rebecca Skloot and the family and I also found the detail of what happened to each member of the Lacks family to be unnecessary. I wish that the book had concentrated more on Henrietta and her cells and less on the process of researching a book.
The main benefit of the book is that it raises many important questions about who owns the various parts of our bodies. It is a fantastic discussion starter and I’m sure that almost everyone will find something to enjoy in this book.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book and I’m really pleased that Henrietta Lacks is finally receiving the recognition that she deserves, but this book desperately needs an update. I found the ending to be quite abrupt and I would much prefer it to end on a high note, detailing all the wonderful things that are happening to the Lacks family now that this book has been successful.
*Note: The audio version is not available in the UK. I imported a copy from the US.