For many reasons, “In Extremis” is the best biography I’ve read in what seems like ages.
There is the subject herself, Marie Colvin. This is a woman who lived life like a beer commercial: with gusto, passion and a bravery that set her apart — and it ultimately cost her her life.
And then there is the biographer, Lindsey Hilsum. Hilsum knew Colvin, covered conflicts around the globe with her and is an excellent writer. She had access to substantial source material — people who knew her, as well as Colvin’s extensive very personal and very honest diaries. Hilsum brilliantly synthesizes it all, separating wheat from chaff and building a portrait of a remarkable and somewhat troubled woman.
Also, “In Extremis” seems fresh. Colvin fits in the perfect biography wheelhouse: She’s well enough known to merit a book, but not so famous that it is filled with previously published retreads of anecdotes.
Colvin was one of five children who grew up in Oyster Bay, N.Y., in what her mother called a “lace curtain Irish” middle-class family. She was a bit wild, but in many ways a typical teenager, once offering God her record collection and nightly acts of contrition if God would get a certain boy to like her.
She majored in anthropology at Yale, but a nonfiction writing course taught by John Hersey convinced her to pursue a career in journalism. She eventually wrangled a job producing a newsletter for a Teamsters local in New York, moved on to United Press International and from there landed at the British weekly Sunday Times.
It was there that she established her street (and jungle and desert) creds, reporting from every trouble spot in the world. If there was a war, there was Marie.
She had a unique ability to tell macro stories from a micro point of view — for instance, interviewing one of the drug-crazed West Side Boys in Sierra Leone in order to tell the story of the war there.
“What I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars — declared and undeclared,” Colvin wrote.
At a ceremony for one of the journalism awards she received, she told the audience: “We have to bear witness. We can make a difference.”
She was proud that her reporting from East Timor put pressure on the Indonesian government to allow trapped refugees to leave with retreating United Nations forces.
She seemed most alive when in the field. At home, there was too much drinking, too many (of the wrong) men and the “normal” insecurity of a woman in a man’s world.
She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka and eventually was killed by shelling during the Syrian government’s siege of Homs, dead at 56.
She wasn’t partisan, but as she told an Australian journalist: “When you are physically uncovering graves in Kosovo, I don’t think there are two sides to the story. To me there is a right and a wrong, and if I don’t report that, I don’t see the reason for being there.”
Words to live — and die — by.
Curt Schleier is a book critic in New Jersey.
In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin
By: Lindsey Hilsum.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 378 pages, $28.