A chilling work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir, "She Left Me the Gun" is a tale of true transformation: the story of a young woman who reinvented herself so completely that her previous life seemed simply to vanish, and of a daughter who transcends her mother's fears and reclaims an abandoned past. Read more...
A chilling work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir, "She Left Me the Gun" is a tale of true transformation: the story of a young woman who reinvented herself so completely that her previous life seemed simply to vanish, and of a daughter who transcends her mother's fears and reclaims an abandoned past.
"One day I will tell you the story of my life," promises Emma Brockes's mother, "and you will be amazed." Brockes grew up hearing only pieces of her mother's past--stories of a rustic childhood in South Africa, glimpses of a bohemian youth in London--and yet knew that crucial facts were still in the dark. A mystery to her friends and family, Paula was clearly a strong, self-invented woman; glamorous, no-nonsense, and frequently out of place in their quaint English village. In awe of Paula's larger-than-life personality, Brockes never asked why her mother emigrated to England or why she never returned to South Africa; never questioned the source of her mother's strange fears or tremendous strengths.
Looking to unearth the truth after Paula's death, Brockes begins a dangerous journey into the land--and the life--her mother fled from years before. Brockes soon learns that Paula's father was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years. After finally mustering the courage to take her father to court, Paula is horrified to see the malevolent man vindicated of all charges. As Brockes discovers, this crushing defeat left Paula with a choice: take her own life, or promise herself never to be intimidated or unhappy again. Ultimately she chooses life and happiness by booking one-way passage to London--but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula's first triumph in her new life.
"She Left Me the Gun "carries Brockes to South Africa to meet her seven aunts and uncles, weighing their stories against her mother's silences. Brockes learns of the violent pathologies and racial propaganda in which her grandfather was inculcated, sees the mine shafts and train yards where he worked as an itinerant mechanic, and finds in buried government archives the court records proving his murder conviction years before he first married. Brockes also learns of the turncoat stepmother who may have perjured herself to save her husband, dooming Paula and her siblings to the machinations of their hated father.
Most of all, "She Left Me the Gun" reveals how Paula reinvented herself to lead a full, happy life. As she follows her mother's footsteps back to South Africa, Brockes begins to find the wellsprings of her mother's strength, the tremendous endurance which allowed Paula to hide secrets from even her closest friends and family. But as the search through cherished letters and buried documents deepens, Brockes realizes with horror that her mother's great success as a parent was concealing her terrible past--and that unearthing these secrets threatens to undo her mother's work.
A beguiling and unforgettable journey across generations and continents, "She Left Me the Gun" chronicles Brockes's efforts to walk the knife-edge between understanding her mother's unspeakable traumas and embracing the happiness she chose for her daughter.
The secrets a mother kept
If Emma Brockes’ memoir She Left Me the Gun reminds you of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, don’t be surprised. Both books grapple with a larger-than-life mother whose formative experiences in the harsh landscape of southern Africa turned them somewhat eccentric, even melodramatic. But while Fuller’s mother held on for dear life to their farm in what was then Rhodesia, Brockes’ mother, Paula, fled South Africa as soon as she could manage it and lived the rest of her life in England, raising her daughter in the kind of sleepy suburban security she could only have dreamed of as a child.
Furthermore, as it turns out, Paula wasn’t just escaping the heat, the scorpions or the poisonous racial politics in the country of her birth. She was also leaving behind a brutal past marked by abuse.
Throughout Brockes’ childhood, her mother kept the truth about her family under wraps. It was only after she became very sick with cancer that Paula revealed she had testified against her father at a trial. “Deathbed revelations weren’t something people had,” Brockes writes. “That my mother, who would ring me at work with the newsflash that she’d found the socks she was looking for . . . had managed to keep this from me was extraordinary.” Still, even then, Paula wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the details of the disturbing charges against her father.
Brockes, an only child, felt unmoored after her mother’s death; she thought there was more to Paula’s past than she’d let on, but she also craved a connection with her mother’s family back in South Africa, many of whom she’d never met. Flying to Johannesburg to meet her mother’s siblings and oldest friends, Brockes was seeking some grand revelations, and she was not disappointed. These stories are doled out in bits and pieces, foreshadowed and then fulfilled. Along the way, a remarkable family narrative emerges, one with more than its fair share of darkness. Yet Paula herself is not only a sympathetic figure, but even a triumphant one. The love that her seven younger siblings still feel for her is palpable, and her daughter’s admiration only grows with her deeper understanding of her mother’s past.
She Left Me the Gun illuminates the necessary fictions we create when trying to understand our family history, as well as the relief, and even pride, that comes from knowing the truth of our origins, however sad or strange they may be.