She Left Me The Gun

When I finished this book, I felt that, in an ideal world, it might be good not to read anything else for a week or so. The story was so powerfully told that it made me wonder how many stories are actually worth telling, and what constitutes the mysterious essence that makes a story worth hearing. So many others seemed insignificant and trivial in comparison. In any case, this is not a book for the faint-hearted; you might like to read it wearing protective clothing.

She left the gunEmma Brockes was a 28-year-old journalist when her mother died of lung cancer. Emma was an only child who had been brought up in the Home Counties (a very refined and respectable part of the UK), had done well at exams and enjoyed tennis. Nothing in her family life had prepared her for the reality of her mother’s history. Emma knew she had been born in South Africa and emigrated in her twenties; that her own mother had died very young and she had been separated from that side of her family for decades; that life with her father’s new family had been rough and unsophisticated but overflowing with siblings for whom her mother had cared deeply.

If it struck me as odd that we never saw or heard from any of them, I didn’t dwell on it. Like most children, the life my parents led before I was born was a rumour I didn’t believe in. When I gave her childhood any thought at all, I thought it sounded like fun; like Cider with Rosie, but with deadlier wildlife.’

Her mother’s deathbed confession destroys this charming image once and for all. Her father had been a violent alcoholic and a pedophile, and she had once had him arrested and put on trial. The case eventually collapsed when her stepmother retracted her evidence. (Her father came up to her in the courtroom afterwards, grinning. ‘Aren’t you proud of me?’ he asked. Her mother said ‘it was the most shocking moment of her life’.) After that, she could no longer stay in South Africa, and so she had left. Emma Brockes was stunned. The portrait she paints of her mother is of a very strong, very confident woman, someone who never stood for any nonsense or compromised her principles and who had a quick wit and a sharp tongue, but who loved her only daughter steadfastly, enormously. There had been no clue that she had been so abused. She was an irrationally over-protective mother, but Emma had assumed it was normal. In the midst of her grief, she decides to find out what she can about her unknown grandfather. The first search she undertakes pulls up the evidence of a murder conviction.

So she travels to South Africa and sets out to meet (and to be drunk under the table by) a whole new family. Aware of the delicacy of her mission – how do you ask aunts and uncles you’ve never seen before about childhood abuse? – she finds herself tiptoeing around a lot of relatives with open arms but closed lips.  But it’s clear her mother’s siblings are mostly floundering in life. The history she eventually uncovers is brutal and profoundly shocking. Coming on top of the recent loss of her mother, Brockes finds her own strength tested. But she also develops an even greater admiration for her mother, who not only held her family of origin together, but kept the information and its repercussions so very far away from her husband and daughter. ‘With a lurch, I realise how afraid she must have been,’ Emma writes, ‘that these things in her past would put her beyond reach of common understanding; that they would make her alien, even to me.’

This is an exquisitely well-written memoir that manages to convey with great subtlety how hard it is to be up close to the actuality of abuse, how everything – language, conscience, comprehension – resists the knowing of it. It’s also a vivid portrait of South Africa as it is today, still a country fraught with tensions and dangers. The only thing I missed was a better sense of Emma Brockes’ reaction to everything she learned. Maybe numbness and shock was the simple truth of it. But it felt like a conscious decision not to express emotions around the material, even though she was very present as a narrator. But maybe it was just a way to leave centre stage to her mother, who clearly was a woman of extraordinary moral strength, who knew how to fight and when to let go.

29 thoughts on “She Left Me The Gun

  1. It sounds like a powerful book; “it made me wonder how many stories are actually worth telling.” I’ve been thinking about that recently. What makes a story and makes it worthwhile. I know many people who have done the same thing as Brocke’s mother but with less completeness, I’m referring to concealing the degree of abuse they came from. Most that I know told their kids something, but the bare minimum. Perhaps she was able to avoid that because of the physical distance between Australia and the UK. An interesting decision and I’d like to know what Brocke thought of that decision.

    • Well really, it was very much as you say. Brockes’ mother said the bare minimum, and this when she was dying (she had one other unsuccessful attempt to tell Emma when she was 10 – too young for that weight of information). This is the part where the narrative falls silent, and I, too, would have liked to hear more. The general impression is that Emma is astounded that her mother kept so much to herself, and she’s impressed by her restraint. But I would have been interested to know more. I think you’re right about that physical distance, btw.

    • It was a very good book, and one that had to tread an extreme version of exactly that tightrope you suggest! I remain fascinated by the whole business of self-revelation – how complicated and difficult it is to do.

      • Very difficult indeed. Many readers who read my (retail) memoir reacted viscerally and angrily to me (not the work, actually), as if I’d eaten one of their children — when the narrative voice is one we authors very carefully choose among many choices. Duh.

  2. oooh this one sounds really good. you think she stayed kinda neutral, so we’d be able to understand the characters better without our morality getting in the way?

    • Yes, I’m sure you’re right – she’s encouraging the reader to form his or her own opinions, and not be too biased by her own. I think you’d appreciate this one – the writing’s great and the story really packs a punch.

      • As long as it moves fast. I have read some books like this and after 200 pages, you really get to the point where you don’t care if anyone gets better or not, you’re just tired of hanging around whiny, depressive people. From what you wrote though, it sounds far from that. You know, you’re increasing my Amazon donations greatly…

  3. Oh wow. What a thing to discover. I can’t imagine learning that about my mother after she was gone — all I’d want would be to talk about it with her. I’d be going back over things in my head, times that she was overprotective, and I’d want to check with her like — do you remember this incident? was this to do with that?

    • Jenny, I think you pretty much put your finger on how Emma Brockes did feel. I think she was completely compelled to visit South Africa and get the whole story, but also terrified of what she’d find (with good reason!). Maybe she doesn’t talk about her feelings because they are precisely swamped with things she would need to discuss with her mother, and can’t.

  4. Pingback: Nightstand 2013: Week Twenty-Four | The Quotidian Diary

  5. My heart sank when I saw that the abusive family of origin was South African. But that also means that I’ll have to read this in order to find out exactly how bad they were. I’m also intrigued to see how Brockes’ perception of her mother changes as a result of what she finds out. And then there’s the bravery that it must have taken to write a memoir like this. I’m guessing that she didn’t want much contact with her SA family anyway so perhaps it wasn’t so difficult to write about them?

    • And inevitably I thought of you when reading this! I’m not sure how Brockes felt about her South African relatives. She seems to get close to them while she’s out there; but then she returns home and despite good intentions never visits again. Maybe she was just echoing her mother; maybe the story was too much for her. Maybe there’s just too much baggage. It’s an intriguing question! Please do let me know what you think about this, if you get hold of a copy. I’d love to know.

  6. I’ve read several reviews of this book. Yours is the only one that gives me any idea of what it was like to read and whether I might like to read it (maybe not, because of the missing dimension you point out, which would matter a lot to me. Or maybe some time when I’m feeling not too vulnerable).

    • I think you’d appreciate the quality of the writing and the general honesty of the account. But I completely agree it’s the sort of book best read when not feeling vulnerable. And I did miss that sense of Emma’s feelings guiding me through the story. I’d love to know what you make of it, but then, there are other books I’d probably put your way first.

  7. I’m not sure this is more worth telling than a less dysfunctional story. But that’s my own question for myself really. Coming from a very similar situation, although I was much more exposed, as I knew about the abuse when I was very young and my mother wasn’t good at dealing with it, I have often been wondering if I should write about it. Haven’t we heard too many stories of abuse?
    I find her approach interesting. I couldn’t stay out of the account, it would feel weird but maybe, because she learned about it so late, it affected her less? Not sure. I know that with hindsight, I’m glad I knew. There is one thing I cannot deal with and that’s when I hear that the truth has been kept from me. If my mother had told me on her death bed … Another interesting question is how many secrets like this will never be told.

    • I definitely think that Emma Brockes has the option of staying out of the story of her mother’s life because she knew nothing about it, and was not herself involved in it. I should think learning about it at a younger age would infect a child’s perception not just of their mother, but of the world around them, too. The problem with stories of abuse is that so often they boil down to the same thing. And then that same thing is so dramatic and has such huge consequences that it’s worth telling. So perhaps that’s why I missed more of Emma’s input – I wanted to know more about how it affected her, which would have been the unique part of the story, perhaps. I’m not sure. I play around with this question without ever reaching any real conclusions!

  8. The title would have intrigued me. But once I read the fly leaf, I probably would have put it back. Your review is, as always, an excellent standard by which I know this book is not for me.

    • Well that is what I am here for! No, probably not for you, dear Grad. Sometimes it’s a relief to think there’s at least one book that can be crossed off the list!🙂

  9. This sounds quite intense–and very powerful. I can see how it would be hard to follow it up with a novel by Marian Keyes (however good a Marian Keyes novel might be). You do find the best memoirs–I already have a long list of books you’ve read that I want to read now, too, and will be adding this to it. I don’t think I would have been brave, or adventurous to have gone to South Africa in search of the truth!

    • No, me neither! I might have sent a few emails, but I expect that would have been the beginning and end of it! I just love memoirs, and truth to tell, they’re so good at the moment that I don’t have to look too far to find them (Paula Fox is definitely on my list!). Yes, poor old Marian – it wasn’t fair to ask her to take up the slack after this one. I’ve put her aside for a better time (and I’m sure one will come).

  10. I heard this book discussed on the radio and while I was intrigued didn’t think I could face it. I’m still not sure I can. It does, as you say, make you wonder about the lives of those around you, though. At one point we had a disastrous member of staff who had a knack of what you might call probing at delicate teeth. He would turn the discussion round to topics that were likely to recall memories that students might have tried to bury or at best come to terms with. When the counselling staff finally came to talk to me about him their workload had doubled. None of us had any idea that there were that many students with a history of some sort of family abuse behind them. I didn’t know whether to be grateful to him or to throw him out on his heels. Fortunately the decision wasn’t mine and he didn’t pass his probationary period.

  11. Oh Litlove, for some reason your blog disappeared from my feed reader and I thought since I didn’t see it pop up you must be on holiday or something! Oy. anyway, will be catching up now. This sounds like a really powerful book. Your nonfiction project is getting on quite well, it seems!

    • Don’t worry, dear friend! I’ve had the same thing happen to me before now. It’s lovely to have you here, and so good of you to catch up. I am loving the non-fiction, and can’t wait to get my teeth into the rest of the books on my list. I’ve been lucky so far – not a dud amongst them!

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