In 1993, in the final, fiery days of apartheid, a 26-year-old white American activist called Amy Biehl was murdered by a group of young black men in a township near Cape Town. Four men were tried and convicted of the murder and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. A few years later they had been freed. Two of the men were subsequently employed by Amy’s parents to work at a charity set up in her memory. The men grew close to the Biehls. They called them ‘Grandmother’ and ‘Grandfather’.
Justine van der Leun, an American writer living in South Africa, set out to tell this twenty-year story, but as she delved into the case, the prevailing narrative started to unravel. Why didn’t the eyewitness reports agree on who killed Amy Biehl? Were the men convicted of the crime actually responsible? And could it be that another violent crime committed on the same day, in the very same area, was connected to the murder of Amy Biehl?
We Are Not Such Things is the result of Justine van der Leun’s four years investigating this strange, knotted tale of injustice, hatred, forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a gripping journey through the bizarre twists and turns of this case and its aftermath – and a lucid, eye-opening account of life today in a society still fractured and haunted by apartheid.
Reviews of We Are Not Such Things
‘Gripping, explosive . . . crafts a close sense of place that rivals the work of Katherine Boo’ New York Times
‘Beautifully written and carefully observed … a Truman Capote-style detective story in which Van der Leun rummages for clues through the detritus of modern South Africa’ Financial Times
‘A total page-turner, a gripping Serial-like true-crime story’ Vogue
‘Deeply researched and thought-provoking . . . an engaging take on a murder that might have derailed democracy’ Economist
‘Unforgettable. A gripping narrative that examines the messiness of truth, the illusory nature of reconciliation, the all too often false promise of justice’ Boston Globe
‘Extraordinary. A dense and nuanced portrait of a country whose confounding, convoluted past is never quite history’ Entertainment Weekly
‘Moving . . . necessary . . . A story of frustrated expectations, broken dreams, endemic greed and corruption, but also indomitable human spirit’ Minneapolis Star Tribune
‘A murder story told with the dramatic tension of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the precision of the very best non-fiction reporting. Each page bursts with fresh insights’ Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy
‘Fascinating. Shatters convenient narratives about the end of apartheid and the nature of justice, and takes readers on a headlong chase for deeper truths’ Jill Leovy, author of Ghettoside
‘Suspenseful and engrossing. Van der Leun shows how a powerful desire for reconciliation can in fact obscure the truth, a truth we need in order to establish real equity and the justice that all people deserve’ Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black
‘A book I kept returning to. Van der Leun has a compassionate but admirably clear eye’ Michela Wrong, Spectator Books of the Year