BOOK REVIEW: In Extremis by Lindsey Hilsum



When war reporter Marie Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012 it sent a shockwave through the journalistic community. A leading conflict correspondent and veteran of some of the most dangerous places on earth, Colvin seemed impenetrable. Even an attack in Sri Lanka, which left her permanently blind in one eye and resulted in her iconic eye-patched look, couldn’t stop her from returning to the field. It seemed impossible that she had finally succumbed to the inherent risks of her job. But, regardless of her bravery and her reputation, Colvin was ultimately killed doing one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, and with her death came the inevitable scrutiny and study of her life. What has been revealed is both brilliantly exciting and heart-wrenchingly painful.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin chronicles Colvin’s life from her rambunctious childhood to her famous career as a journalist with London’s Sunday Times. It depicts her force of will – for example, showing up at the Yale admissions office and talking her way in to the school despite having missed the application deadline – and the darker sides of her personality that made her such a fantastic reporter but also caused her immense personal pain – i.e. her drinking problem and tumultuous romantic relationships.

The book’s author, Lindsey Hilsum, is herself an accomplished war reporter. Like Marie, who she befriended through the industry, Hilsum has experienced conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda and Israel, and has real insight into what Marie experienced in her later years. Using Marie’s personal diaries and extensive interviews with her family, friends and coworkers, Hilsum has compiled a fairly complete portrait of a very complicated woman. In Extremis’ real strength lies in the lingering personality of its subject. In passages from her journals and anecdotes from her friends, Marie Colvin comes to life as a person of incredible liveliness and even more incredible nuance. Even in the more shadowy moments - the ones she’s left no writing about - her silence points to the constant contradictions driving against one another and forcing her to choose between love, work, and ultimately life.

Mortal peril was no obstacle to Marie Colvin at the time of her death. She’d been attacked with guns, explosives, and various other weapons throughout her career. Threats of death and kidnapping were par for the course, and despite these workplace dangers, she continued to return to war zones time and time again. Hilsum explores the factors that motivated Colvin to pursue war reporting, and the problems that plagued her decorated career, including an inability to file copy on time, a bad habit of wracking up satellite phone bills, and an alcohol addiction that threatened to weaken her credibility. Risky behaviors like showing up hungover to a battlefield and ignoring orders from superiors should have signaled that something was amiss, but instead only added to Marie’s legend.

Hilsum rightfully uses Marie’s story to demonstrate the hardships journalists - even those who don’t operate in war zones - face day to day in a changing news industry. Marie struggled constantly with feeling of inadequacy and pressure, and after years of witnessing and writing about the worst of humanity finally had to admit to herself and her loved ones that she was struggling. When being treated for post traumatic stress, Marie’s doctors, most of whom had only ever treated soldiers, realized hers was the worst case of the disorder they had ever seen. While soldiers normally only experience combat in fleeting bursts over relatively short deployments, Marie had been embedded in combat zones for months on end.

In Extremis is a harrowing and highly interesting biography of a woman who defied categorization and felt the emotions of life at their most extreme. She took her duty as a societal gatekeeper very seriously, and in exchange compromised her own happiness and well being on many occasions to give voice to the voiceless. Fans of Lynsey Addario’s memoir It’s What I Do will love In Extremis, and anyone who has ever watched war coverage on television owes it to the reporters in those clips to read about their experiences and gain a better understanding of what it takes to shine a light on the darkest corners of the world.