She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £16.99
Emma Brockes describes She Left Me the Gun as an “anti-misery memoir”. The early life of her mother, Paula, in South Africa was unquestionably grim and Brockes has set herself the laudable challenge of telling that story “in a way that was in keeping with my mother’s delight at the world”.
Paula’s father, Jimmy, was a convicted murderer, a violent alcoholic and an incestuous paedophile. When Paula was in her mid-twenties, she had him arrested for domestic abuse. The case was brought to trial at the Johannesburg high court in 1958. Despite testimony from several of his eight children and medical evidence that the 12-year-old had been raped, Jimmy was found not guilty. The presiding judge was Justice Quartus de Wet – the man who would later sentence Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment on Robben Island. What makes Paula’s story even more remarkable is that Brockes knew nothing about it until just before her mother’s death from cancer, in 2003.
She Left Me the Gun is a triumph for three reasons. The first is the voice. Brockes is often very funny. Recalling how it pleased her mother “to be at a slight angle to the culture” in England, she observes that this is “the standard expat consolation: in my case – a British person in New York – looking around and thinking, ‘You people have no idea about the true nature of reality when you don’t know what an Eccles cake is or how to get to Watford.’” Crucially, she achieves her ambition of writing about the most painful of subjects without resorting to the tropes of misery memoir or therapy.
Then there is the material itself – not just the story of Paula’s childhood but that of the lives of her extraordinary siblings. When Brockes visits her alcoholic, born-again uncle Tony, he suggests that they chat over drinks at a casino. On the way in, he issues a warning: “If I ever catch you in here, I’ll beat you up.” He then proceeds to display an exceptional memory of the details of his impoverished childhood. Brockes notes everything down, a deep-sea archaeologist retrieving her murky treasures.
“Every now and then a plague of fleas would sweep through the house, and the cat would be blamed,” remembers Tony. “One day, the old man grabbed our cat and dropped it down the long drop [the toilet]. Mom sent John and me to get it out. We took the axe and cut down a tree with a long branch. We lowered the branch down and the cat shot up it, scattering shit, and it never came back.”
Finally, there is Brockes’s fearlessness and her resistance to glib interpretation of facts that are often tantalisingly opaque. She is unafraid to report one abused sister suggesting that another, unmolested sister was jealous not to be “chosen”. Paula’s stepmother appears to have been the reason the case fell through: at the last minute, she changed her story. For Paula, this was a terrible betrayal. The stepmother (with whom Paula corresponded for the rest of her life, addressing her as “Mum”) sent Paula a letter shortly after she emigrated. Amazingly, it was written on the back of a photograph – a photograph of Paula with Jimmy, the man who had raped her regularly throughout her childhood and adolescence.
Brockes reports all of this without trying to explain it. She understands that she can’t; that however much research you do, some things will always remain unknowable. It is the intelligence and the honesty of this restraint that make the book so powerful.