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lip lit: denise leith, what remains

To call Denise Leith’s What Remains a book of fiction wouldn’t be quite right but it isn’t non-fiction either. This incisive look into the world of war reporting is built around facts and actual events but Leith infuses her story with a gripping narrative and peppers it with characters so real you forget they are fictional.

Historically accurate and politically astute What Remains is so well researched and crafted that it caught me two-fold – intellectually and emotionally. The love story, which I guess could be called the centre-piece, between Katie Price, a journalist, and Peter McDermott, a photojournalist, managed to extract a couple of tears here and there but to judge it on that would be a grave understatement.

Leith lays out the life of Katie Price, from a naïve and green journalist on her first assignment in Riyadh in 1991 through different and equally terrible modern wars in Johannesburg, Sarajevo, Rwanda, Zaire, Chechnya and Baghdad and stints between London and Sydney in such a real way that not only is the story sharp and realistic but the way it has been crafted would suggest a biography rather than a novel.

The depiction of war and carnage in all its different measures and depths is confronting and haunting but never unwarranted. It is exactly in this department that Leith delivers; the parts that actually kept me hooked were the political insights and Price’s experiences in the war zones. Her developing cynicism and the way in which she deals with what is happening around her are strikingly real and my empathy toward her experiences made her story even more powerful.

Travelling on the strength on a wealth of factual knowledge and research, Leith also presents the reader with a touching and believable love story based on friendship and stamped by shared trauma. What I really liked about the relationship between Price and McDermott is their equal status and friendship developing into a strong bond, which is perfectly punctuated by the love they feel for each other. This is also a story of missed chances and the importance of communication in relationships. Their unfailing love over the years, however, is what makes such a romantic and emotionally enthralling read.

Despite feeling as if Leith was warming up in the first half of the book, with some clumsy adjectives and overly descriptive passages I felt the story was more important than any nit picking. There were times when she could have trusted her readers with the imagery more, but having said that, Leith knows when to pull back and leave all the emotional heavy-lifting to the readers.

What Remains kept me up, transfixed and on edge to find out ‘what happens next’ and any narrative that does that definitely gets my vote. I appreciated the honesty and reality of this narrative and the subtlety of the very human relationships Leith so masterfully brings to life.

What Remains, Denise Leith
Allen & Unwin

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