Event/Book Review: All That Remains by Sue Black

Is this a book review, an event review or review of the author? I am not sure. There is no way this could be impartial as I have followed Sue Black’s work since I was in high school and I admire her greatly. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Sue Black talk about her first non-academic book All That Remains and she did not disappoint.

Let’s begin with the book. All That Remains is beautifully presented. The cover is understated and elegant; a lone skeleton on a cream background and each chapter is demarcated by a relevant image or illustration and quote. The beauty of the book took me by surprise – you should never judge a book by its cover but the look of All That Remains is as fantastic as its content. The book is a poignant blend of science, memoir and unintentional motivational life guide. Having penned textbooks, Black excels in her elegant descriptions of the body’s systems, which highlight the beauty and complexity of our bodies whilst still allowing the layperson to digest it. As a humanities student with no link to medical science, I felt like Black was divulging secret information that I shouldn’t be privy to – quatsch of course, but a fun thought none the less. Isotope analysis fascinated me when I was younger and saw it discussed on archaeological shows and Black’s own History Cold Case, it was amazing to hear of how this process worked and hear mind-blowing facts about how our bodies are maps of where we (and even our parents) have been. It made me laugh to think that, in an age in which we are so paranoid about CCTV and smart trackers, our own bodies will reveal our secrets to anyone with the knowledge to ask the right questions. Black reveals our bodies to us with expertise, humour and a skill for teaching complex ideas.

It’s no surprise that Black explains well as she is, amongst many other things, an educator. What you wouldn’t expect, necessarily, is the wit and poignancy with which she writes; from her descriptions of her first dissection to her ruminations on human frailty, identity and family. I didn’t expect All That Remains to have such poignancy, but one thing that really struck me was Black’s focus on the interconnectivity of not only humanity, but our actual bodies. I think because of our individualistic culture, we acknowledge that our bodies follow roughly the same spec; they share limbs, blood types and so on but focus on the divisiveness that our differences in strength cause. We ignore the commonality of our frailties or the fact that the location of our pregnant mothers can be traced through our skulls. Our bodies are a testament to the places we come from, the places we are, and will map where we will go. From our hair to our bones, we exist within a context and I find that comforting.

Now for the woman herself…

I hate the phrase down to earth. When people say it I always have the mental image of someone’s face being smushed into mud. That being said, Sue Black is amazingly gracious and relatable for someone who has done such good in the world. She held the attention of the room effortlessly, not through any artificial showmanship but by being a genuine and interesting person. Her talk wasn’t rote either – when a man coughed whilst she described her grandmother’s lung cancer, she zeroed in on him like a hawk, laughing at the misfortunate timing of his coughing fit. There were two things that I especially appreciated about Sue Black’s talk and by extension her book; that was her focus on family and her delight in the folktales that she grew up with. In her book and within her talk, she spoke about the importance of family and folktales or the spooky ways our grandmas claim to have a sixth sense. She told us to write our loved one’s stories down, not out of vanity but out of ‘family’; our children and children’s children will want to know from whom they came from. I loved this, as a girl who grew up in a family of Irish descent, I grew up with ghosts and have always found the conflict between faith and science uncomfortable. I asked Black about this in the Q&A, ‘Science and faith/the folk are presented as the antithesis of each other, how do you balance the two?’

‘Balance’ She said, ‘Is exactly the right word.’

Black’s book gave me an insight into the body, to the important work Black has done, to the poignant frailty of life. Black herself gave me a friendly memento mori, a reminder to laugh and love my family and a desire to head to Paperchase to buy a notebook in which to chronicle my family’s mad, mundane but equally wondrous tales.