This is without question the best non-fiction book I've read in years. Skloot's debut is thrilling, original and refuses to be shoehorned into anything as trivial as a genre. Equal parts popular science, historical biography and detective novel, it reads as evocatively as any work of fiction.
Skloot repeatedly appears as a character in her own book, narrating her journey from first hearing about HeLa cells in a classroom to her attempts to contact and support the Lacks family. Her narration reveals the trials that the Lacks family have undergone since Henrietta's cells went global, and the sheer amount of trust it took to uncover the details of this story.
But this is really a book about three heroines - the two whose names grace the cover and Henrietta's daughter, Deborah Lacks. Skloot's personal mission to tell this story and Deborah's quest to know about her mother's life and legacy are central parts of Henrietta's story and they form some of the book's most compelling segments.
I write this review as someone who isn't typically a fan of historical non-fiction. Particularly in popular science, I often find descriptions of researchers to be distracting attempts at shoehorning in a human element that is out of keeping with the rest of the book. Not so here - this work has the most human of stories at its core, and never deviates from that important, and often heartbreaking, humanity. When science appears, it does so effortlessly, with explanations of cell anatomy or techniques like "fluorescence in situ hybridization" seamlessly worked into descriptions of the coloured wards of Johns Hopkins hospital to Lacks's hometown of Clover, Virginia.
Skloot's prose is witty, lyrical, economical and authoritative. But The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is not a comfortable read. Learning about Henrietta's devastating radiation treatments, the history of experiments on black Americans and the events in the book's conclusion are heart-rending. But the story is uplifting too, particularly in a stand-out chapter where Henrietta's children, Deborah and Zakariyya, visit a cancer researcher to see their mother's cells under a microscope.
All of this is to be expected of a book that refuses to shy away from tackling important themes - the interplay between science and ethics, the question of who owns our bodies, and the history of racism in the US. Actually considering these issues seems to be too much for some people, like the anonymous reviewer who appears to be attacking a straw-man version of the book. Those who actually make the effort to read the book and heart the story will be rewarded for it.
For all its grand scope, skilful writing and touching compassion, there is one simple element that makes The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks an instant classic - this is one of those stories that genuinely needed to be told. By right, it will achieve the same immortal status as the cells it describes.