Book review – ‘She Left Me The Gun – My Mother’s Life Before Me’: The title alludes to the small pistol Emma’s mother took from South Africa to Britain at the bottom of her chest with other bizarre trinkets.
She Left Me The Gun — My Mother’s Life Before Me, by Emma Brockes
I was prepared not to like this book. Guardian journalist, Emma Brockes who grew up in the English Home Counties describes her childhood as something out of a Bunty annual. Brownies, swimming and tennis lessons, and were there pony rides? I can’t remember. By her own admission, her South African mother’s warning to her had always been: ‘You wouldn’t last five minutes in Africa.’
The title She Left Me The Gun alludes to the small pistol Emma’s mother took to Britain at the bottom of her chest with other bizarre trinkets and summer clothes. The gun was eventually handed in to the local Buckinghamshire police during one of their gun amnesties many years ago and does not appear to have been used in anger – and certainly not left to her daughter, in case you’re worried.
When Brockes’ mother dies, she tries to investigate the dark secrets in her mother’s early life near Johannesburg, to learn more about the rumours and snippets she’d heard about her psychotic South African grandfather and the trial in which her mother testified against him.
I thought she wasn’t going to make it out of the arrivals hall of OR Tambo Airport. After the initial stereotyping of old white men of a certain age in their tight shorts and knee-length socks, and the terrifying black people resting on the side of the road, Brockes begins gingerly to venture out. She even gets mugged walking around the suburbs, apparently near Zoo Lake, at night!… Yes, yes, serves her right I hear you say.
But it quickly becomes clear that Brockes realises she is made of stronger stuff and after meeting her crazy dysfunctional extended African family and a lot of over-friendly, well-meaning South Africans you can sense her skin thickening. In fact she develops her inner steel in the Joburg suburbs and the hide of a rhino to tell this shocking story. And once she is there Brockes settles down into that African mud to wallow.
This secret Brockes uncovers is both sad and shocking, but at the same time strangely life affirming. It shows how some people can survive the worst tragedies, and broken childhoods to repair themselves, like her mother clearly did.
Brockes begins to understand the South African character so well that by the time her friend Pooly arrives from England for a South African road-trip, they become part of the landscape; who would have thought? This horsey English girl and her friend from Manchester…
Read this book, it is not just deeply shocking, but at times hilariously funny, and in parts a bit of a tearjerker. In my view Brockes shoots and scores. This is someone who has understood South Africa, managed to survive for more than five minutes in Africa and I gather is going back soon. It must be the drums.
– Jeremy Kuper 2013