She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes
Equal parts memoir and mystery this book is a fascinating read. The author enjoyed a pleasant childhood in a small English village as the only child of two doting parents. But behind her mother’s carefully created façade there were secrets she’d allude to.
One secret was kept hidden in a secret drawer in a specially crafted bookshelf. Emma’s mother, Paula, told her one day the item would be hers. Turns out it was the pearl handled pistol her mother used to shoot her own father prior to fleeing her native South Africa for London.
Throughout Emma’s life she knew her mother loved her, but Paula was a no nonsense kind of gal. Whining and undervaluing one’s self was not permitted and facing fears head on was insisted upon. On the rare occasions she left her guard down she would share cryptic details of her life. Most were so outlandish they seemed contrived.
The reason Paula always gave for leaving South Africa was politics, pointing to the Sharpeville shootings where people died while protesting apartheid. But as Emma grew older, she suspected this was not the real reason. When Paula dies of cancer, Emma puts her journalistic skills to work on discovering just who her mother really was. The journey takes her back to South Africa where she meets her mother’s friends and family, most of them for the first time.
Paula actually reinvented herself when she left South Africa, changing her name from Pauline to Paula. Her father, Jimmy, was a good looking charmer who remarried after the death of Paula’s mother, and fathered seven more children. Jimmy also happened to be a racist, an alcoholic, a murderer, and a pedophile.
Emma comes to terms with her family history by reconstructing the details leading to the woman her mother became, not just as a mother, but as the eldest sibling and a good friend to those who loved her. She suffered the longest and possibly the most in being unable to prevent what happened to her siblings. Paula’s strength and courage led her to reinvent herself and choose a happy life. The rest of the family shares their individual remembrances of the same events with Emma, and she tells all of their stories with heartbreaking compassion.
I don’t know if I agree with the advanced description of “psychological suspense”, since you surmise early on the atrocities Jimmy commits; however this certainly is a compelling read. I hope the author found the journey worth the emotional effort, because she certainly has written a fine tribute to her mother while delivering an honest testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
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