Viv Groskop applauds a riveting unearthing of dark family secrets.
She Left Me the Gun is quite simply an extraordinary book. In the hands of any halfway decent author, this would be an incredible story: a mother with a mysterious South African past who arrived in England in her early twenties with a beautiful antique handgun and a mission to forget who she used to be. In the hands of a writer as gifted as Emma Brockes, it’s basically the perfect memoir: a riveting, authentic tale elegantly told.
Now an award-winning Guardian journalist, Brockes grew up as an only child. She knew how sensitive her mother, Paula, was about her upbringing. It wasn’t worth quizzing her on it too thoroughly. She knew that Paula’s mother died when she was two and she was raised by her father and stepmother, who went on to have another seven children. As the eldest, Paula helped raise her half-siblings. Then, as soon as she could, she left the country.
Paula married an Englishman, Emma’s father, in the Sixties. They met at the law firm where he was doing his articles and she was the bookkeeper. By the time Emma was born, they lived in a Buckinghamshire village where Paula would occasionally surprise her husband and daughter with glimpses into her childhood in “Zululand”, where there were hailstones the size of golf balls and snakes hanging from the trees. Even less occasionally she would mention her father. Violence was implied. And something to do with the gun.
When Paula died, her daughter slowly began to unravel what happened and discovered a devastating history of dysfunction, addiction and abuse. Few relatives in South Africa were untouched by the destruction wrought by Paula’s father. The testimony of the survivors – reluctantly persuaded by Brockes to talk – is moving and harrowing. But the most poignant passages come where the physical evidence is revealed in court papers. As an adult, Paula attempted to bring her father to trial, on behalf of one of her sisters. It was the collapse of that case – and the ongoing denial of her father and stepmother – that eventually made her leave her life behind.
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