It’s impossible to think of a bodily fluid more misunderstood and manipulated than blood. (Well, maybe semen, but it’s a very distant second.) The red liquid that courses through our bodies and accounts for about 7 per cent of the average adult’s weight defines, defends, and – history tells us – divides who we are as humans. As a biological fact or a metaphor for gender, ethnic, or family identity, blood offers fascinating possibilities for a book. Also overwhelming ones. Lawrence Hill’s Blood: The Stuff of Life, this year’s CBC Massey Lectures, falls closer to the latter end of the spectrum.
In trying to demonstrate the pervasiveness of his subject, Hill serves up a superficial and repetitive examination of it. Despite an extensive bibliography and a long list of acknowledgements thanking experts who offered comments on almost every line, Blood frequently reads like a Buzzfeed page: “25 Things You Need to Know about Blood.” There’s synthesis but no analysis, erudition but no substance.
The author scores some important points on topics such as the misuse of blood in justifying misogyny or racial discrimination, and he’s passionate about the double standards that bestow respectability on blood sports such as hockey or boxing. Too bad he often mistakes moral pronouncements for philosophical meditation, leaving him sounding like a narrator on a Sunday nature program: “We are more connected than we think, and sometimes in dangerous ways.”
Luckily, Hill is a commanding storyteller, and the autobiographical threads bring Blood to a more human scale. The author’s own struggle with diabetes is humbly recounted and admissions of growing up in the shadow of a famous sibling and father are piercingly honest. Hill’s prowess doesn’t extend to critical examinations of literary texts, however, as the superficial discussions of recent vampire literature (the Twilight books) or blood-soaked tragedies (Macbeth) attest.
The perfunctory approach may play well on radio, but as a book, and an overarching intellectual argument, Blood is bloodless.