What’s it like to be the only child of a mother who’s endured terrible trauma in her childhood and tried to leave it all behind? British writer Emma Brockes has had such an experience, and she’s written about it in She Left Me the Gun. The publisher describes the “she” in question:
A mystery to her friends and family, Paula was clearly a strong, self-invented woman; glamorous, no-nonsense, and frequently out of place in their quaint English village. In awe of Paula’s larger-than-life personality, Brockes never asked why her mother emigrated to England or why she never returned to South Africa; never questioned the source of her mother’s strange fears or tremendous strengths.
Paula dies of cancer when Brockes is only 27. When Brockes decides to then dig into her mom’s past, she finds out that Paula’s father “was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years,” states the publisher. A court case against him by Paula et al. went nowhere. “…(T)his crushing defeat left Paula with a choice: take her own life, or promise herself never to be intimidated or unhappy again. Ultimately she chooses life and happiness by booking one-way passage to London—but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula’s first triumph in her new life.”
As Brockes later recounts to an Amazon interviewer, it was amazing to learn that her mom, “the world’s worst keeper of secrets,” had been able to hide this from her. In the same interview the author explains some of the effects on her own development:
She managed to put a positive spin on problematic impulses; so, when I was a kid, she was convinced I was going to get kidnapped and murdered, but instead of scaring the bejesus out of me, she managed to turn it into a comedy routine that assuaged her fears (a little) and didn’t traumatize me. She was so bonkers about my exposure to risk, it has probably made me blasé; it’s a great luxury, to have someone else do all your worrying for you.
After my mother’s death, when I found out exactly what she’d been withholding, it struck me that she had made a moral, practical and aesthetic choice to be a certain way in relation to her past and I have definitely been influenced by the example she set. It’s mainly a good thing; I don’t see the point in going on about everything all of the time; although I probably tolerate discomfort longer than I should. (That might just be a British thing.)
Dwight Garner, reviewing She Left Me the Gun for The New York Times, quibbles a bit about the title—but is pleased otherwise with the read:
Paula did bring a gun with her to England, one that Ms. Brockes describes this way: ‘It was smaller than I’d imagined, silver with a pearl handle, like something a highwayman might proffer through a frilly sleeve during a slightly fey holdup.’ But her mother didn’t leave it to Ms. Brockes. She turned it in to authorities during a gun amnesty program.
This is just about the only thing about ‘She Left Me the Gun’ that’s unsatisfying, however. This is a grim story, but it’s also a love story.
Viv Groskop, Telegraph: “As a narrator of an uncomfortable tale, Brockes treads with a reassuring lightness. This is the best possible tribute to her mother. There’s no self-pity and no mawkishness, just an inspiring sense of compassion and humanity. As soon as I finished reading it, I turned back to the first page and started again.”