I discovered Emma Brockes’ ‘She Left Me the Gun’ through Claire’s (from Word by Word) review of it. Something about the book pulled me in – probably a combination of the main theme of the book, the subtitle ‘My Mother’s life before me’ and what I read in Claire’s review. I read memoirs only once in a while, but I thought I should read this. I finished reading it yesterday and here is what I think.
‘She Left Me the Gun’ is Emma Brockes’ memoir about her mother. Emma Brockes’ mother had come from South Africa to work and live in London in the ‘60s, and Emma has heard some stories about that from her mother while growing up. But she doesn’t know why her mother moved so far away from her family to live in a different country. She also gets to know that her mother has a large family – many brothers and sisters, some of whom visit England – and Emma doesn’t know how her mother managed to live away and apart from them for decades. Her mother hints in passing about some kind of dark secret about her past, concerning her father and the case she filed against him in the South African court and promises to tell Emma more about it in the future. Unfortunately, that conversation never happens and Emma’s mother dies of cancer. Later, Emma decides to do some research into the case that her mother filed against her grandfather and she discovers some shocking things about her grandfather. Emma decides to travel to South Africa and meet her uncles and aunts and find out more. The rest of the book is about Emma’s journey to the past and what she discovers there about her mother’s life before she was born and the secrets that she uncovers about her mother’s family.
I found Emma Brockes’ memoir quite interesting and at times depressing. At the beginning of the book she says,
“Like most children, the life my parents led before I was born was a rumor I didn’t believe in.”
This is a sentence which most of us would probably relate to and agree with. When Emma starts her journey into her mother’s past, she discovers a totally different woman and facets of her mother’s personality that she didn’t even know existed. She also gets to know the shocking secrets of her mother’s life and the way her mother has survived the trauma to reinvent herself and rediscover happiness. And during her journey to South Africa she also gets to know the country and its people and discover her relatives and learn to like and understand them in different ways.
I don’t know what else to say about the main theme of the book, because they will all be spoilers. I was quite disappointed with the book description on the inside flap, which was a summary of the book, which revealed most of the surprises. I think book descriptions and book blurbs should inspire the reader to read the book and discover more, rather than giving a summary of the book and revealing surprises for the reader. Earlier, introductions written for books used to do that – reveal spoilers – but now book blurbs are doing that. It is sad. Emma Brockes herself hints at the dark secrets in her mother’s life and we more or less know what it is. I wish the revelations had come out gradually and naturally. After around three-fifths of the book is over, the book takes a bit of a roller coaster ride because Emma Brockes starts talking more about her South African experiences – her exploration into South African history, her trip to Soweto, her meeting of Nelson Mandela – which weakens the main focus of the book. Luckily, after a while, the book returns back to its main theme – her mother and her family history.
Having given the bad news, now I have to state the good news. ‘She Left Me the Gun’ is a beautiful book. It is depressing and haunting, because of the events it describes and the secrets it reveals. But it is beautiful too, because of the way Emma’s mother comes out of the traumatic events which affected her to build a life which is filled with beauty and happiness and brings joy and happiness and camaraderie to the people who touch her – her family, her friends, her colleagues, her boss. Though the secrets revealed are dark and depressing, the book is ultimately life affirming and I loved the book for that.
I also liked other aspects of the book – the cover was beautiful, soft to the touch with a matte finish. The font was beautiful and it was a pleasure to read.
While reading the book, I wondered about something. Emma Brockes is British but I read the American edition of her book. I wondered how the spellings of some of those ‘problem’ words would be – will the editors include the ‘u’ or leave it out, in words like ‘colour’ (‘color’) and ‘humour’ (‘humor’), and will they substitute ‘c’ for ‘s’ in words like ‘practise’ and ‘advise’. I like doing such quirky things – trying to catch the editor off guard – and it was interesting when I started looking for such words in this book. I spotted three words and discovered that the spelling was all inconsistent and that made me smile and I stopped there. The three words I noticed were ‘humour’ (the ‘u’ is intact – British spelling), ‘practicing’ (the ‘s’ has been replaced by the ‘c’ – American spelling) and ‘demeanor’ (the ‘u’ has been left out – American spelling). It made me wonder whether the American editor missed out the first word during the editing process or whether this was the spelling adopted by the author herself and the editor had let them be. It also made me wonder what happened when a 19th century (or earlier) British classic was published by an American publisher – do they delete the ‘u’ and replace every ‘c’ with an ‘s’ in the concerned words? The tyranny of spelling variations 🙂
I enjoyed reading ‘She Left Me the Gun’. Enjoyed is actually the wrong word. It left a deep impression on me. It was depressing, haunting, inspiring and life-affirming. I hope to find out what Emma Brockes comes up with next.
Have you read ‘She Left Me the Gun’? What do you think about it?