In Extremis: The Life Of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

By Lindsey Hilsum

Chatto & Windus, £20

Review by Susan Flockhart

IN the spring of 2004, Marie Colvin was in a dark place. After almost 20 years spent braving bombs, bullets and military dictators, the intrepid war correspondent was supposed to be resting and recuperating in her London home. In fact, she was drinking heavily, experiencing panic attacks and feeling suicidal.

Yet when her boss, Sunday Times foreign editor Sean Ryan, suggested a trip to The Priory, Colvin was disparaging. “I'm not going anywhere near the f***ing Priory,” she told him. “That's for people who had a nervous breakdown because they missed the Prada sale.”

The capacity for wicked humour in the bleakest of circumstances was typical of Colvin, the US-born journalist who was killed in action in Syria in 2012 and whose life will shortly be portrayed in the biopic, A Private War, with Rosamund Pike in the lead role.

In Extremis, Lindsey Hilsum's new biography of her friend and fellow foreign correspondent, succeeds brilliantly in honouring a brave and hugely influential journalist, while allowing the real woman, with all her strength, intelligence and human frailty, to shine through.

Nor should Colvin's apparent disdain for therapy-seeking emotional snowflakes be interpreted as contempt for the frivolities of fashion. For although she spent her working life in a flak jacket, Marie Colvin was a party-loving socialite who adored clothes-shopping, as her newspaper's accountants discovered when she claimed on expenses for La Perla lingerie that had been looted from her bag while she was reporting from East Timor.

Hilsun had access to the personal diaries Colvin kept since childhood and her account begins with Marie's early years in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where she excelled at school, fretted about boys and grew into an adventurous teenager with a taste for sailing, travel and protest demos.

At Yale University, she took a Politics of Journalism class run by Pulitzer Prize-winning Hiroshima author John Hersey. He said the most powerful way to report on a big, complicated world event was via the testimony of people who had lived through it and Colvin never forgot that.

Years later while visiting an exhibition on the D-Day landings, she wondered whether the tens of thousands of soldiers rushing ashore amid machine-gun fire really cared about the military strategists' “battle plan” enough to cease being terrified individuals. “It was a question worthy of her journalistic mentor John Hersey,” writes Hilsum, “and one she sought to answer all her life.”

After joining the Sunday Times foreign desk in 1986 at the age of 30, Colvin determined to get as close as possible to combatants and affected civilians so that readers might catch an inkling of what it feels like to be “in extremis, pushed to the unendurable”. She wanted to make people care, and she went to extraordinary lengths in pursuit of that goal.

She reported from Lebanon, the West Bank, East Timor, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Iraq, sleeping in bombed out shelters, dodging landmines and filing her story while bullets whistled past her ears. In the freezing winter of 1999, as Chechen villages were relentlessly bombed by the Russian airforce, other news-teams made do with interviewing refugees who'd fled across the borders but Colvin managed to get herself smuggled into Grozny. Sharing miserably inadequate accommodation with fighters and refugees, she gained astonishing first-hand accounts of life in the bombed-out villages.

One woman told how she'd gone outside during a barrage to pull the family's cow into shelter, only for a missile to hit her house and eviscerate her husband and children. “I want the world to feel ashamed for what is happening,” she told Colvin. “The world is safe and is doing nothing while we are being slaughtered.”

Determination to bear witness was Colvin's guiding force, but she was by no means a model reporter. Her excuses for filing late – “Arafat sent for me” – were supposedly legendary and some of her early reports were so mangled that the standing newsroom joke was: “Marie's copy's in – someone call Bletchley Park!”

But her scoops – including interviews with Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gadaffi – were sensational and Colvin prided herself on being “the boldest of the bold” and managing, despite taking enormous risks in pursuit of a story, to stay “one step ahead of my nightmares”.

Then in 2001, while reporting on the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, she was shot. She thought she was going to die but instead endured a long and perilous journey leaking blood from shrapnel wounds before eventually receiving the surgery that would save her left eye, but not its sight.

Wearing a patch to protect her blind eye from infection, she carried on working. In 2003 near Fallujah, Iraq, she hired a digger to uncover a mass grave containing 600 Kuwaiti prisoners of war Saddam Hussein had denied massacring.

Colvin was not superhuman. The trauma she had witnessed and experienced was taking its toll and despite scoffing at The Priory, she eventually sought psychiatric help and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Hospital treatment and time with friends, family and her beloved sailing boat allowed her to carry on until, shockingly, she was killed by an improvised explosive device along with photographer Remi Ochlik, during the siege of Homs in Syria. She was 56.

Hilsum draws parallels between Colvin's life and that of her idol, Second World War correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Both believed reporting the horror of war could help prevent future conflicts. And just as Gellhorn's life remained shadowed by the “darkness” she witnessed while reporting from Dachau, so Marie Colvin was profoundly affected by what she'd seen, though it's clear her demons were not all work-related: her diaries suggest she struggled with insecurity and probably had an eating disorder from an early age.

Like Gellhorn, Colvin also had a “messy and volcanic” love life. She was married twice, to military historian Patrick Bishop and the late Bolivian journalist Juan Carlos Gumucio. Drawing on Colvin's letters and notebooks as well as testimony of friends and family, In Extremis describes many of those relationships in considerable depth – perhaps uncomfortably for some of the participants.

Still, that's the nature of biography, and Lindsey Hilsum – Channel 4's News International Editor – has used the material to powerful effect. In Extremis is a gripping and very moving book which raises important questions about the way society values foreign correspondents at a time when their profession has never seemed more perilous.