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Book Review – What Remains by Denise Leith

“Vivid and heartrending, a novel as memoir of a journalist needing love to weigh against her horror and dismay at massacre and genocide by a writer who closely understands frontline reporting” – John Bryson, Chairman of the Literature Board of the Australia Council
Initially, I picked this novel up at the library as the beautiful cover art caught my attention, but on reading the synopsis at the back, my curiosity was even more aroused when I saw that my former homeland – South Africa – was mentioned.
I finished it yesterday, and whilst many books leave my thoughts as soon as I reach for the next one, What Remains has left me with images that will continue to haunt me for some time.  This story is one of epic proportions and one which will leave you asking the same question as Kate Price – “do you think that evil really exists?”
And, whilst we all sit in our mostly safe homes in this beautiful country Australia, reading about war in the newspaper and hoping to gain some understanding and insight to all the madness, we in fact have no idea – the press editors attempt to keep us from seeing the true images of mostly innocent casualties of war and the unnecessary atrocities that all war inflicts on its victims.
Told in the first-person through the eyes of an inexperienced and naïve young war correspondent, Kate Price, this book gives an in-depth view of what our journalists face on the front line every day.  Denise Leith takes us on an intrepid, eye-opening journey, one in which she vividly describes the carnage witnessed by these war correspondents.
Beginning in Riyadh in 1991, and whilst covering her first assignment, Kate meets Pete McDermott, a renowned photo journalist, for the first time.  An idealist who would like to change the world (and which idealism sometimes gets her into a wealth of trouble), Kate is determined to get her first big break and prove her editor wrong, so she approaches Pete to ask if she can join his crew.  Whilst on their journey towards Kuwait, they traverse the “Highway of Death” which refers to a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq in which an attack by American aircraft and ground forces resulted in the destruction of hundreds of vehicles and the deaths of many of the occupants.  June 1992 brings with it Johannesburg where she covers a story on the unrest between two of the country’s largest black political parties, and finds herself in one of the biggest, most dangerous townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg and witnesses for the first time the act of necklacing – Kate thinks she has seen it all.
Rwanda during April 1994 finally sees Kate and Pete attempting to let their guards down, but unfortunately after witnessing the diabolical genocide committed in Nyarubuye (a gruesome and heartbreaking scene) where Kate’s emotions begin to close down on her and she is left unable to process the savage reality, we are left wondering whether she will ever be able to return to the point where visions and dreams of this gruesome and heart-breaking scene she bears witness to, no longer trouble her.  The picture she paints of Rwanda is graphic and describes the abject ravages of war that in our minds as civilians we cannot begin to comprehend – Rwanda was too much for the mind to take in.  Something in her was dying … her hope.”
Ultimately this is a story of love and hope, one that spans 14 years, where both Kate and Pete meet up from time to time on their assignments and one where they attempt to overcome all the battle scars and devastation of war.  By no means soppy and scripted in such a way that their story folds seamlessly into the heart of the book, their relationship is a complex one, but Denise has captured some extremely tender and poignant moments between them, as well as the people they come into contact with and the friendships they build.
I was quite taken by the nostalgia that the author invoked in me on Kate and Pete’s visit to my home Province of KwaZulu-Natal in 2002 where they are called to make a documentary at an AIDS Hospital in Tugela Ferry.  Denise Leith has captured the essence of life in rural KwaZulu-Natal perfectly and Kate’s uninhibited actions with the children at both the hospital and in the village left my heart aching.
In the last few heart-wrenching chapters, Kate’s thoughts are deep and profound and saw me reaching for the tissues as the tears rolled down my cheeks and I sobbed my way through to the very last page.  Will those haunting words “you only regret the things you didn’t do” enable her to see what remains?
In my opinion, Denise Leith has produced a well researched, confronting, deeply compelling and thought-provoking novel bringing to life characters with personality and humaneness and which will leave you haunted long after the final page is turned.  A love story that is “subsumed in the rush to keep working and to stay alive”, but which grows in the most unlikeliest of places – this is a story that everyone should read.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – What Remains by Denise Leith”

  1. Thank you Shelleyrae – that comment really means a lot to me coming from you, seeing as I am so new to all of this. Brilliant book and all I can do is recommend it to everyone I speak to.

    Thanks again.

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