Skip to main content
book review

Author Lawrence Hill.Tom Sandler/The Globe and Mail

Blood is timeless. From the cave paintings of prehistory to the prime-time fascination with vampires, in popular culture, it's a bodily fluid with staying power. Even whispering the word seems to leave something on the lips.

Blood is a wily thing too. To different people, it connotes dramatically different things: health, life, death, heritage, conjuring crimson images that spill and pool into memory and emotion. As a substance, there really is no substitute. As a symbol, it saturates everything; it's the great euphemism for all that divides and unites us.

Lawrence Hill has probably thought more about blood than most. The Canadian author was just a boy when it first pricked his consciousness. Racing home after a schoolyard mishap, he left a deliberate trail of his own blood on a Toronto sidewalk, seeing it as proof of his existence. Yet for Hill, whose father was black and his mother white, there would be years ahead of seeing his blood through the prism of his mixed ancestry. Until, in 1979, a transfusion in West Africa saved his life and forever changed his view of blood as an indicator of race or identity. That motif has run like a river through his work since.

In his new book, Blood: The Stuff of Life, Hill dives full bore into the subject, following the blood trail through social and scientific history, exploring it as a powder keg of contradiction. Blood, after all, signifies mortality and immortality, healing and violence, guilt and innocence, the source of recovery and disease. As Hill writes, blood can save us, and keep our secrets. But it can also betray us, revealing our cholesterol levels, how much we had to drink, or whether we take drugs. Blood can elevate us too, but also denigrate us (think "blue bloods," and the one-drop rule that once condemned anyone with any African ancestry to social suppression in the United States).

Hill, whose eight other books include the novels Any Known Blood and The Book of Negroes, and the memoir Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, has produced a work of passion and intense curiosity that could only come from what he describes as a "lifelong obsession." Written as a series of essays for this year's CBC Massey Lectures, Blood is a sprawling, and provocative buffet of all things blood – from the notions of purity conferred by the "half-blood" wizards who descend from the non-magical "muggles" of Harry Potter fame to the gender divisions borne of menstruation. It's that eclectic.

Yet as Hill illustrates, blood flows relentlessly, literally and figuratively, through most human endeavours, in science, art, politics, religion and literature. Music, he argues, derives its appeal in part because of backbeats that mimic the rhythm of blood pumping through the chambers of our heart. In language, blood may be the king of metaphors, giving us "bad blood" in the family, the vengeful "out for blood," the raging whose "blood boils," "blood brothers," "bleeding hearts" and on it goes.

In medicine, the history of blood is a colourful one and Hill offers vivid accounts of the field's pioneers. There was 17th-century British anatomist William Harvey, who first proved blood circulates through the body by shocking (and spraying) his colleagues with the dissection of a live dog. There's the tragic tale of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician convinced that doctors could reduce the risk of blood poisoning in their patients if they sanitized their hands between autopsies and child delivery. His 19th-century campaign was so far ahead of its time it landed him in an asylum – where, ironically, he died of blood poisoning.

By the 20th century, doctors had begun blood transfusions in humans and, not long after, identified the distinct blood groups that would revolutionize the field. Yet once it became possible – and, with the outbreak of war, common – for people to give and get blood, medical science smacked head-first into flawed perceptions that blood signified race, that it was somehow the glue that bonded people to a certain heritage. For years in the United States, blood donated by black men and women was not to be given to whites – even on the battlefield.

Like any buffet, there may be a bit too much food for thought in this essay collection, and not all of it riveting. But Hill is a wonderful storyteller, and it's the stories – his own in particular – that absorb and resonate.

Since that day he first splashed blood on a Toronto sidewalk, Hill has considered his own blood from varying perspectives. Having come from a family of high achievers (his father, Daniel G. Hill, was a prominent human-rights activist and scholar of black Canadian history, and his brother, Dan Hill, the famous singer-songwriter who recorded the 1970s hit Sometimes When We Touch), Hill has heard several times that his literary gifts are "in his blood." But the years and hours he has invested in his craft convince him otherwise. In midlife, he was forced to consider how blood actually does figure into his inheritance. Like several men in his family, his father and brother included, Hill developed Type 2 diabetes, requiring him to monitor his own blood daily. But it's the powerful story of Hill's life-saving transfusion that ties together the wide-ranging themes of Blood.

In the summer of 1979, when Hill was 22, he flew to Niger, one of the world's poorest countries, as a volunteer with Canadian Crossroads International. After growing up in a white suburb, Hill touched down in the capital city of Niamey anxious to nurture his budding sense of African identity. He writes that his "very molecules, it seemed, screamed with the desire to connect with the people of Niger," to feel accepted, to feel he belonged.

Soon after, however, he became so violently ill with gastroenteritis that only a transfusion could save him. In the days before anyone had heard of HIV/AIDS, Hill wondered not about the health risks of the procedure as the blood dripped into his body, but who the donor might have been. If the donor was black, would the transfusion make him more African? If white, would he be less so?

In a profound moment of clarity, he realized it made no difference if the donor was African, Asian or European – only that the blood matched his own, and that it was a gift, given so that he might go on living.

In that one vignette, Blood draws together medicine and metaphor, the power of a life-saving substance trumping faulty perceptions that, as any measure of racial identity, blood matters. In the aftermath, Hill writes that he would never again consider the actual nature of his blood in terms of his ancestry. Still, blood is often used as a synonym for race, and in the genomic age, it's a stand-in for DNA too. Yet, it may well be that DNA will do more for exposing race as a biological farce than blood ever could. Since it has become possible to trace ancestry through DNA, the legions of people now using genetic tests to try and learn about their family histories are also learning that that all of us are mixed, and no one can lay to claim to "racial purity" of any kind.

As Hill writes, race has nothing to do with blood, or with skin colour, but perception – self-perception. It may stain the mind with ancient notions, but blood has only the power we give it to affect who we are.

Carolyn Abraham's new book, The Juggler's Children: A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us, is a finalist for the Governor General's Award.

Interact with The Globe