Incest, alcoholism, robbery, gunfire, murder, sensational court trials — these are among the building blocks of the dysfunctional-family memoir, and in She Left Me the Gun, Emma Brockes puts a check mark next to each.
You could slide this memoir, in mass-market paperback form, with a lurid cover, into one of those rusty, rotating wire book racks you used to find in the back of small-town drugstores (I miss those racks), and few buyers would be disappointed. She Left Me the Gun brings the tabloid mire.
It also happens to be full of intellect, feeling and dartlike expression. It's one of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place, back before every featherhead in your writers' group was trying to peddle one. It has the density of a very good novel.
Brockes is a British journalist who lives in New York and writes for The Guardian of London newspaper. Her book is about her mother, Paula, who once said to her, "One day I will tell you the story of my life, and you will be amazed."
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Paula never did tell her daughter her story; she died of lung cancer and kept her secrets intact. This book is about Brockes' sustained attempts to unearth them. As such, it is also the story of the author's own life, one that she relates with intensity and wit.
Brockes doesn't merely inform us that she was an only child, for example. She also writes, Nora Ephron-ishly: "Being an only child is a bit like being Spanish: You have your dinner late, you go to bed late, and, with all the grown-up parties you get dragged to, you wind up eating a lot of hors d'oeuvres."
You move past this sort of charm as you would the brightly lighted entrance to a scary ride at an amusement park. You are heading into the churning gloom, where the ghosts are quite real.
Paula was born in South Africa and moved to London, where she met Brockes' father when she was in her late 20s. As a mother, she was fearless and funny and caustic. She loved to poke fun at Britons. "The English," she'd tell her daughter, "are a people who cook their fruit."
When she found a snail in her garden she would "lob it, grenadelike" over a fence and into the garden of a despised neighbor. She read the newspaper with a pen in hand, so she could blacken the teeth of politicians she loathed (Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl). She permitted no whining.
Her life was devoted to her daughter. "Some people write novels or paint beautiful paintings," she once told Brockes. "I created you."
Paula was so selfless that Brockes often suspected that her mother was trying to protect her from some intangible peril. That Paula never spoke about why she left South Africa, and about why she had so little contact with her seven half-siblings, added to the perplexity.
What Brockes flies to South Africa to find, after her mother's death, dismays and astonishes her. Paula's father, Jimmy, was a brutal alcoholic who had been imprisoned for robbery and murder before he met Paula's mother.
He repeatedly raped his daughters, Paula included. When Paula was 24, and her half-siblings were younger, she took Jimmy to court for these rapes. He was cleared on all counts. Not long before she fled to England, she shot him five times, and he survived.
As Brockes reads about these events in archives, we feel her creeping rage.
She visits Paula's siblings, each of whom is a damaged specimen of humanity. They have almost no contact with one another. "They are people with whom you can't be in a room," she writes, "because their pain is your own."
At the same time she is reckoning with her extended family, Brockes is reckoning with the racism of the South Africa where her mother and her half-siblings were raised.
"There was the wider insanity of a country in which a white child was encouraged to believe that however badly he behaved, he was intrinsically more valuable than an entire race of people," she writes. "As a pathology, it might have been designed to create psychopaths."
As you do with the best writers, you feel lucky to be in Brockes' 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.
The ocean of her prose has the right amount of whitecaps. About her mother's lonely life when she arrived in England, knowing no one, she writes: "I imagine her a little like the Enigma machine, ticking over for months and years, trying every possible mathematical combination until she cracked a way to live."
In South Africa, young aid workers are "Scandinavian and British women in firm sports bras who dash around town alleviating suffering as you or I might wipe down a table." About the men there: "South Africans have a natural authority with a pair of meat tongs." These two sentences are on the same page.
This is a grim story, but it's also a love story.
"Her genius as a parent," Brockes writes about Paula, was that her protection was invisible. "If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know — a British beach in winter — she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors."
'She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me'
By Emma Brockes
The Penguin Press. 298 pp. $26.95.