“My mother’s life before me” consisted of Paula losing her mother at the age of two and being raised by a father and a meek stepmother. She cared for her seven half-siblings, watched her father’s descent into alcoholism and abuse and, eventually, got one of her half-sisters to file charges of sexual abuse against him. A subsequent trial set him free. And there was a gun, which is how the mystery begins to unravel after Paula’s death and sees Brockes travel to South Africa to meet her mother’s family and learn the secrets that tore the family apart. It was her father’s acquittal of the charges, a result of her stepmother going back on her testimony, that eventually forced Paula to leave for England.
Once in England, Paula got a new circle of friends, a job in a law firm where she met her husband, moved to the countryside, had Emma, found things odd about the British and their habits, made references to her life in South Africa. Her daughter and husband knew about Paula’s mother’s death when she was two, the South African landscape, the half-siblings, the violent father and that she left — but not why she had left.
And this is what makes She Left Me the Gun so remarkable. As Brockes begins to unravel the secrets, including information about her grandfather that perhaps Paula may not have known — he’d served time in prison with others for murdering a farmer before he married her mother — you wonder how Paula built a new life without cracking. Maybe Brockes wonders this too as she meticulously pieces everything together on her trips to South Africa, meeting her mother’s family, all of whom are scarred by the trauma in different ways and need time to be cajoled into discussing it with their just-turned-up-at-the-doorstep niece. When they do recount their relationship with their father and their memory of the trial (their father chose to defend himself and questioned his children and wife on the stand) there is nothing over the top or hammy about it, nor is it cold and clinical; rather, it is a brutal retelling of court data, and reliving it for a family that the reader has come to understand, with all its warts, makes for a sad read. What it also tells is of the siblings’ attachment, rather dependence, on Paula, and how without her, they wouldn’t have survived.
In remembering Paula, her brother Tony tells Brockes: “God put Paula there. She carried such a burden. Mom wouldn’t have coped without her. Why I loved her? She didn’t abandon us. She didn’t desert us. … At 16 she earned her own money, she could have left. But she stayed. Without her help I don’t know what would have happened.”
We would not have had this incredible story about a woman’s courage, conviction and resolve not to let her past affect her family. Brockes could have inherited rage or hatred or self-pity, but there’s none of that. Instead, in discovering her mother’s past, she pays a loving tribute to the woman she did not know and thanks her for being the woman she would grow to love as her mother.
She Left Me The Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me
By Emma Brockes
Penguin Books, UK