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.
Emma 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.