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Rich portrait of a courageous war correspondent

Biography: In Extremis, The Life of War Correspondent, Marie Colvin, Lindsey Hilsum, Chatto & Windus, €22.99


Author Lindsey Hilsum expertly places Marie Colvin's life in context in 'In Extremis'

Author Lindsey Hilsum expertly places Marie Colvin's life in context in 'In Extremis'

Author Lindsey Hilsum expertly places Marie Colvin's life in context in 'In Extremis'

Bravery or recklessness? It was a question Marie Colvin posed in a speech given over fallen colleagues in 2010. Her work as a war reporter, which ended with her death in 2012, was infused with courage. But, in this excellent account by fellow journalist Lindsey Hilsum, it was not without ambiguity. Colvin's bravery is luminous yet during her last days, her decision to continue broadcasting from the hideout in Baba Amr, rather than just writing articles, infuriated the Syrians and put her and the others' lives at additional risk.

This superb biography delicately probes the tension inherent in Colvin's choices. By gamely tackling the complexity of Colvin's professional and private life, Hilsum crafts a full and rich portrait of Colvin that never becomes hagiography. The complexity - the fact that Colvin was far from a saint - is what makes it compelling. In Extremis is an intensely human account that does justice to its subject.

Colvin was a relatively rare figure in the world of foreign correspondents, a woman who climbed the rungs of the journalistic ladder in a fiercely aggressive environment. But her background was conventional. Her mother was from an Irish-American working class family, her father one of the more privileged, middle-class "lace curtain Irish". It was a comfortable, even idyllic childhood, and one she did everything she could to escape. Not only did she report from Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Syria, she forged a glittering social life in London, where her friends included Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones's Diary, and the fashion designer, Bella Freud. In Oyster Bay, Nassau County NY, by contrast, the conventionality was suffocating. "She feared the waves closing over her, feared being subsumed by her family, by the cloying parochialism of her home town," Hilsum writes.

Lindsey Hilsum knew Colvin through her own work, and her reporting is conscientious. She draws on an array of sources, including Marie's diaries, and she speaks to Colvin's old boyfriends, friends and even the Syrian man who was with the journalist in Baba Amr when she died, a pacifist vegetarian who is now a refugee in Europe. Hilsum expertly places Colvin's life in context and touches on the contemporary issues arising from her gender - the fact that at Yale a love interest considered her "masculine" or that Colvin felt underpaid by The Sunday Times.

The image of Colvin with a startling eye patch is now familiar, but her editors at The Sunday Times were responsible for cultivating her persona as an adventuring war correspondent. It was part of a newspaper culture that placed the personal experience of reporters in the story. When Marie didn't include them, her editor wrote up the anecdotes she told him over the phone. Although this form of writing played to her strengths, it placed an additional load on her shoulders, something else she had to live up to. "Her real struggle was with herself," Hilsum says. "Her public persona as a brave war correspondent was out of kilter with the insecurity she felt inside."

Hilsum deftly filters the diary material she has, allowing it to inform without overwhelming the narrative. When she includes a direct quote, it's often for comic effect. As Colvin rose in stature, she felt empowered to ignore her editors' diktats writing about what she preferred. As Gaddafi fell from power, The Sunday Times' executive editor wanted a historical piece about him but Colvin felt that breaking news was more important. "Tyrer wants profile," she wrote in her diary. "I ignore."

Shadowing Colvin's exciting career were her drinking and troubled relationships. Many of the book's best moments lie in how it uncovers Colvin's vulnerabilities. Her first husband, Patrick Bishop, an Englishman with Irish heritage, was already cheating when they married; they reunited temporarily later on for a second act. Her second husband, the Bolivian journalist Juan Carlos Gumucio, had drug and alcohol habits and an appetite for women; he would subsequently kill himself. Other relationships were equally tricky, leading to breakdowns. When friends visited, they might find her with a bottle of wine or vodka - "by many measures, she was an alcoholic", Hilsum says. The turmoil of war could provide an escape from her life in London-and vice versa.

The book propels readers towards the final chapter, called Baba Amr after the fateful city where a rocket killed both Colvin and photographer Remi Ochlik, who was just 28. Since their deaths, reporting from Syria has become increasingly sparse, leaving the regime to continue its bloody work unchecked. There's a terrible sadness in how this biography ends, for Colvin and Ochlik and for the Syrians. Yet it epitomises the philosophy of her reporting. She understood the risk she was taking. In her own words, "Covering a war means going to places torn by destruction and death, and trying to bear witness."

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