Synopses & Reviews
"One of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place... It has the density of a very good novel... As you do with the best writers, you feel lucky to be in Ms. Brockesand#8217;s company." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times
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 motherand#8217;s fears and reclaims an abandoned past.
and#147;One day I will tell you the story of my life,and#8221; promises Emma Brockesand#8217;s mother, and#147;and you will be amazed.and#8221; Brockes grew up hearing only pieces of her motherand#8217;s pastand#151;stories of a rustic childhood in South Africa, glimpses of a bohemian youth in Londonand#151;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 Paulaand#8217;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 motherand#8217;s strange fears or tremendous strengths.
Looking to unearth the truth after Paulaand#8217;s death, Brockes begins a dangerous journey into the landand#151;and the lifeand#151;her mother fled from years before. Brockes soon learns that Paulaand#8217;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 Londonand#151;but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paulaand#8217;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 motherand#8217;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 motherand#8217;s footsteps back to South Africa, Brockes begins to find the wellsprings of her motherand#8217;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 motherand#8217;s great success as a parent was concealing her terrible pastand#151;and that unearthing these secrets threatens to undo her motherand#8217;s work.
A beguiling and unforgettable journey across generations and continents, She Left Me the Gun chronicles Brockesand#8217;s efforts to walk the knife-edge between understanding her motherand#8217;s unspeakable traumas and embracing the happiness she chose for her daughter.
"[A] courageous, clear-sighted
book, which shifts between memoir and elegy as it examines the persistence of family secrets and the fragile interface between innocence and knowledge ...and#160; Brockes handles her toxic material with a lightness of touch that navigates skillfully between tragedy and bleak comedy...
[Brockes's mother] did not need to leave her daughter a gun in the end. Her real bequest to Brockes was the psychological freedom to be able to confront the past without inhibition, and to take straight aim at it. The gun is this book." --The Guardian
"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, itand#8217;s basically the perfect memoir: a riveting, authentic tale elegantly told.'and#160; --Sunday Telegraph (UK)
"Full of intellect and feeling and dartlike expression. Itand#8217;s one of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place, back before every featherhead in your writersand#8217; group was trying to peddle one. It has the density of a very good novel... As you do with the best writers, you feel lucky to be in Ms. Brockesand#8217;s company throughout She Left Me the Gun. She is mugged; her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and swastika-wearing bikers roar up. She never loses her composure... This is a grim story, but itand#8217;s also a love story." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"An exemplary family history and immensely brave... Brockesand#8217;s descriptions of South Africa and her newly discovered family (towards whom she is loyal and generously affectionate) are astute and, one feels, tempered by the tightly coiled wayward nature of the freshly grief-stricken. It makes the slow pace of the revelations all the more honourable and heartfelt. The result is a wise, tender letter of love to a mother and her incredible sense of love and and#173;necessary self-sufficiency." --Helen Davies, Sunday Times (UK)
"This soul-searching tale is a shocking trail of murder, violence, incest and betrayal that leaves her both shocked and proud ... Emma Brockes writes with dry humour and a refreshing lack of sentiment as she unravels the complex family ties that have become twisted into a difficult and at times almost impenetrable web of hidden suffering." --Daily Express (UK)
"The riveting memoir about how a prizewinning British journalist reclaimed her mother's traumatic past... The story of Brockesand#8217; quest to understand her motherand#8217;s past is powerful on its own, but the backdrop against which most of the narrative unfoldsand#8212;a country with its own history of rapacious violenceand#8212;makes the book even more poignant and unforgettable."
and#8220;This astonishing, unsettling book examines the relationship between knowledge and love. Vigorously unsentimental, deeply absorbing, and written with fierce wit, it is an unstinting look at what it means to be innocent, at any stage of life, and how obsessively we all seek and avoid the many faces of truth.and#8221;
and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; and#8212;Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon
and#8220;A beautiful, wise book. It deals with some of the grimmest aspects of human experience, but it is also one of the most genuinely uplifting works I have read in years. Emma Brockesand#8217;s superb, clear-eyed narration is an object lesson for any aspiring memoir writer. She Left Me the Gun deserves to become a classic.and#8221;
and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; and#8212;Zoand#235; Heller, author of The Believers and Notes on a Scandal
and#8220;Emma Brockes sets out on a delicate journey to uncover a secret locked in the heart of her own familyand#8217;s darkness. A harrowing tale of murder and incest emerges, unfolding by stages in this utterly compelling psychological memoir.and#8221;
and#160;and#160;and#160;and#160; and#8212;John Berendt, author of The City of Falling Angels and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
A journalist struggles to unearth the story of her mother’s resilience and secrecy following an unbelievable childhood trauma in South Africa
“One day I will tell you the story of my life,” promises Emma Brockes’s mother, “and you will be amazed.” Despite her mother’s tales of a rustic childhood in South Africa and bohemian years in London, Brockes grew up knowing that some crucial pieces of the past were left unspoken. A mystery to her friends and family, Brockes’s mother, Paula, was glamorous, no-nonsense, and totally out of place in their quaint English village. What compelled her to emigrate to England was never explained, nor what empowered her tremendous strengths and strange fears. 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.
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me is a tale of true transformation, the story of a young woman who reinvented herself so completely that her previous life seemed to simply vanish—and of a daughter who transcends her mother’s fears and reclaims an abandoned past. Brockes soon learns that Paula’s father was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half siblings for years. He is ultimately taken to court and vindicated of all charges—but not before Paula shoots him five times, and fails to kill him. She books passage to London, never to return.
She Left Me the Gun carries Brockes to South Africa to meet her seven aunts and uncles, to weigh their stories against her mother’s silences, and to understand one of the world’s most beautiful yet bloody countries. 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 buried in government archives the startling court records that prove he was secretly imprisoned for murder years before he first married.
An extraordinary work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir, 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 herself and her daughter.
About the Author
EMMA BROCKES writes for The Guardianand#8217;s
Weekend magazine and has contributed to The New York Times, Vogue, Harperand#8217;s Bazaar
, and Elle
. She is the winner of two British Press Awardsand#151;Young Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Yearand#151;and while at Oxford won the Philip Geddes Memorial Prize for Journalism. Her book What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Saved My Life
was serialized on the BBC. She lives in New York.