The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich (first published in 2017 by Flatiron books)

About the book:

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. 

But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes?the moment she hears him speak of his crimes?she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. 

Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar. Crime, even the darkest and most unsayable acts, can happen to any one of us. 

As Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colours her view of Ricky’s crime.

But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.

An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, The Fact Of a Body is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed?but about how we grapple with our own personal histories. 

While you may have very set views on the death penalty, I think the book will still make you think long and hard about so many of the topics that are relevant here...

Along the way it tackles questions about the nature of forgiveness, and if a single narrative can ever really contain something as definitive as the truth. 

This groundbreaking, heart-stopping work, ten years in the making, shows how the law is more personal than we would like to believe?and the truth more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.

Rating: 4/5

The Fact of a Body, as many reviewers have noted, is a difficult read. This is largely due to the nature of the subject matter, and the narrative style which gives the heavy material its due.

But it’s also a stellar, searching read, making you question at each step – what would I do in this situation?

But I didn’t understand then that the law doesn’t find the beginning any more than it finds the truth. It creates story. That story has a beginning. That story simplifies, and we call it truth. 

There are two parallel story arcs in this book. The first is the case of a murdered child, with an in-depth look at the life of the perpetrator, as well as the investigation surrounding the crime.

Criminal law doesn’t care where the story began. But how you tell the story has everything to do with how you judge.

The author really delves into each situation, narrating as if she was there, reconstructing the scenes as best as possible from her extensive research.

The second narrative arc deals with the author’s family history and her own experience of child abuse, which she is forced to confront. She conducts her research with the knowledge that Ricky Langley is also a confessed paedophile who molested children prior to his arrest for murder. 

Going through his past crimes is a harrowing experience, both for the reader and the author in her quest to understand this particular man; this particular crime.

The people face being asked to make an unimaginable decision. There is no other situation in which we ask a civilian to decide if someone will live or die.

While you may have very set views on the death penalty, I think the book will still make you think long and hard about so many of the topics that are relevant here – how we fail people who seek help, the lack of rehabilitation and resources for those who need it, the nature of forgiveness and redemption.

Criminal law doesn’t care where the story began. But how you tell the story has everything to do with how you judge. Begin Ricky’s story with the murder – and it means one thing. Begin it with the crash – and it means another. 

The book is a slow read, but not one to give up on. It’s a compelling, real-life mystery that gives great insight into the workings of the American legal system; into a forgotten small-town crime; into the mind of one lawyer/writer who grapples with a multitude of narratives, both personal and professional, in pursuit of the truth.

People think the robe protects you. It doesn’t protect you. Not from the stories.

Purchase a copy of the book fromRaru.co.za

Read more of Hannah’s reviews on her book blog.

WATCH: Alexandria Marzano Lesnevich at the Water Street Book Store