If Emma Brockes’ memoir She Left Me the Gun reminds you of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, don’t be surprised. Both books grapple with a larger-than-life mother whose formative experiences in the harsh landscape of southern Africa turned them somewhat eccentric, even melodramatic. But while Fuller’s mother held on for dear life to their farm in what was then Rhodesia, Brockes’ mother, Paula, fled South Africa as soon as she could manage it and lived the rest of her life in England, raising her daughter in the kind of sleepy suburban security she could only have dreamed of as a child.
Furthermore, as it turns out, Paula wasn’t just escaping the heat, the scorpions or the poisonous racial politics in the country of her birth. She was also leaving behind a brutal past marked by abuse.
Throughout Brockes’ childhood, her mother kept the truth about her family under wraps. It was only after she became very sick with cancer that Paula revealed she had testified against her father at a trial. “Deathbed revelations weren’t something people had,” Brockes writes. “That my mother, who would ring me at work with the newsflash that she’d found the socks she was looking for . . . had managed to keep this from me was extraordinary.” Still, even then, Paula wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the details of the disturbing charges against her father.
Brockes, an only child, felt unmoored after her mother’s death; she thought there was more to Paula’s past than she’d let on, but she also craved a connection with her mother’s family back in South Africa, many of whom she’d never met. Flying to Johannesburg to meet her mother’s siblings and oldest friends, Brockes was seeking some grand revelations, and she was not disappointed. These stories are doled out in bits and pieces, foreshadowed and then fulfilled. Along the way, a remarkable family narrative emerges, one with more than its fair share of darkness. Yet Paula herself is not only a sympathetic figure, but even a triumphant one. The love that her seven younger siblings still feel for her is palpable, and her daughter’s admiration only grows with her deeper understanding of her mother’s past.
She Left Me the Gun illuminates the necessary fictions we create when trying to understand our family history, as well as the relief, and even pride, that comes from knowing the truth of our origins, however sad or strange they may be.