‘Sand and courage and bombs and sleep’. A review of In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I would love to know what my eighteen-year-old self would have made of this book. At school and university I spent a while thinking that I might like to be a foreign or war correspondent, partly inspired by the work of Martha Gellhorn which I had read for my degree courses. It was a dream I never acted on and, having read In Extremis, Lindsey Hilsum’s masterful biography of Marie Colvin, I have to say I’m glad I didn’t. Had I read this as a teenager, though, I wonder what the story would have been. Would it have put me off? Or would it have encouraged me?

I had never actually heard of Marie Colvin before In Extremis came to my attention towards the end of 2019. Like me, she was an admirer of Martha Gellhorn’s fearless, impassioned war reporting – and more than this, she saw Martha as her major hero, a woman whose path she was willing to follow to the bitter end. From suburban America to the battlefields of East Timor, Sri Lanka, Kosovo and Syria, Marie turned her life into a tightrope walk between life and death. As I understand from Hilsum’s biography, she wasn’t just motivated by the adrenaline and occasional glory that seem to go hand in hand with being a war correspondent, especially one of her calibre. Far deeper-rooted was her desire to help people in desperate need, to use her journalism as a weapon against the world’s many injustices. Her job was truly her calling, and it would save the lives of many before costing her own.

If ever the pen has been mightier than the sword, then surely in the form of Marie Colvin’s journalism. Although Hilsum only quotes brief passages from her articles – there is another book, On The Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin, for those who want to delve deeper – their extraordinary power is undeniable. Then there are the stories, such as the part Marie played in the rescue of refugees in East Timor, or the article she wrote from a Palestinian refugee camp during the Lebanese civil war, which resulted in the Syrian authorities ending a siege that had lasted more than 160 days. In 2001 she became an unwitting hero for the Tamils after losing the sight in one eye when she was shot in Sri Lanka. Whether it was an epic escape through the mountains of Chechnya in deep winter or a series of improbable encounters with Gaddafi, Marie Colvin’s life was a whirlwind of extreme events the likes of which few people will ever come close to.

With extreme events come extreme emotions, and Hilsum – a fellow war correspondent and friend of Colvin’s – doesn’t shy away from these in her relentless search to uncover the truth of her subject’s life. Rather than simply providing a catalogue of professional achievements, filling three hundred pages with tales of derring-do, Hilsum has drawn extensively on Marie’s diaries and her friends’ memories to build up a detailed picture of the woman behind the war correspondent. Chaotic, volatile and full of an infectious zest for life, Marie was always falling in and out of love, spending beyond her means and drinking to excess. She was also deeply shaken by what she had seen, suffering from PTSD and anxiety attacks which she often failed to acknowledge. As messy as her romantic relationships were, her female friendships were loyal, deep and lasting. Reading about her life, I felt in turns infuriated and infatuated. Had I met Marie Colvin, I would have wanted to be her friend.

For me, this kind of reaction is the mark of an excellent biography. Although I finished the book feeling harrowed – at times there was almost too much material, and the endless descriptions of horror and war began to leave me numb – I also felt that I knew the woman I was reading about. I understood what moved and motivated her, the ambitions and convictions and extremely human emotions that so often caused her to blatantly disregard her safety and eventually led to her death. Given all that she achieved professionally, it would probably have been easy to paint a picture of Marie Colvin as an unassailable and hard-nosed reporter, or perhaps simply a determined activist for humanity suffering at the extremes of life. Instead, this is the portrait of a real woman – a human being who loved and lost and struggled to find her way, just like the rest of us.

Marie Colvin was killed reporting from Homs in the early stages of the Syrian war – her family later sued the Syrian government for having deliberately bombed the building she was sheltering in. While Hilsum chooses simply to present the facts of her death as they happened, throughout the book she returns again and again to the important question of what it is we are actually asking our war correspondents to do. Marie spent most of her career at the Sunday Times and there is a definite sense that the paper encouraged her and other war reporters into situations they should better have avoided – or, perhaps more accurately, didn’t discourage them. The competition involved in getting the best copy and reporters’ own desire to uncover the truth has all too often proved to be a lethal combination, one of which Marie was all too aware.

The question she once asked in an address given to fellow journalists at St Bride’s Church in London brackets the story of her life, quoted by Hilsum near both the beginning and end of her book. It is a question that underpins this entire remarkable story and something I will be asking myself for a long time to come. Marie Colvin had something I think few people possess: true courage, combined with a deep understanding of what a life can be used for. ‘What is bravery, and what is bravado?’ she asked. We are given no resolution – but I get the sense that it was an answer she knew.

My rating: 4/5

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