Nora Ephron concocted the title, redolent as it is of noir romance. That much the acknowledgments tell us at the close of “She Left Me the Gun,” a book that opens with talk of a crime and our first glimpse of the perpetrator. But this is not pulp fiction. It is, rather, a daughter’s gripping, compassionate investigation into a past from which her mother had shielded her with ferocious, quietly fraught love.
“He was a talented carpenter, a talented artist, a convicted murderer and a very bad poet,” British journalist Emma Brockes writes, introducing us to her grandfather, Jimmy, whose depraved and vicious heart pumped a poison through his family that remained long after he was gone. Brockes guesses that her grandmother, Sarah, had no idea, in 1930s South Africa, that she’d married a killer. “Which is a shame. It would have been useful information to have had when, as she lay dying, she was deciding with whom to leave my two-year-old mother.”
The family life that followed Sarah’s death was undeniably sordid: a second marriage, eight more children, peripatetic poverty, desperate alcoholism, the rape of a succession of little girls by their father. “It’d be hilarious,” Brockes’s cousin jokes, decades later, floating the idea of a family reunion. “We could get all of you in a room together, get in loads of booze, and invite Jerry Springer.” In lesser hands, the story of this family might easily have been tawdry, or depressing, or vengeful. It is none of those.
It might also have been — in keeping with what Janet Malcolm has called “our blaming and self-pitying times” — the woe-is-me cry of a grown child whose parent has concealed fundamental autobiographical information, then had the audacity to die. Brockes’s mother, Pauline, was 28 when she left South Africa for England, a pearl-handled gun buried deep in her trunk. She retained a lifelong aversion to certain British traits and was not always pleased by the Englishness of her daughter. But Brockes’s sensible refusal to cast herself as a victim, her impulse to just get on with it, is at least as British as it is South African. It certainly isn’t American.
“It was an attitude she wanted me to inherit; not quite stiff upper lip, which she considered too English, but a less-repressed version of that,” Brockes writes. “Whining was not permissible. Undervaluing oneself was not permissible.”
As a doted-upon only child growing up in a village an hour from London, Brockes sensed in the air something unspoken. She knew she had a passel of aunts and uncles on another continent; she knew their voices, too, through the letters they wrote to their older sister, which her mother would have her read aloud. But she could not help noticing that none of them ever visited. “Occasionally over the years I had wondered which would be worse: to discover that something terrible had happened, or that not very much had happened at all and that either my mother or I had concocted a drama from nothing.”
Shortly before Pauline died of lung cancer, she told her daughter about the sexual abuse and that Jimmy had been arrested and tried for it. That meant there was a court transcript, a trail for her to follow. In the months after her mother’s death, Brockes got on a plane to South Africa and followed it.
That she was working on a book as she did this — that she was taking notes even as she sat down with her damaged, long-lost aunts and uncles, asking them to talk about what her mother would not — doesn’t detract from the emotional urgency of her quest. As Joan Didion was when she wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Brockes was embarked on a project born of bereavement, aimed at keeping the beloved alive for as long as the writing lasts. She began the project, by the way, nearly 10 years ago.
Brockes has a professional’s exquisite eye for the telling detail, but the personal gaze is a different thing altogether. For decades, she overlooked telling, sometimes even startling, details about her mother — blocked them out, failed to take them into account — because they didn’t fit the narrative she believed was true.
The truth that emerges in “She Left Me the Gun” is as variegated and partial as the truth in any family story: so many wounded witnesses, so many points of view, so many questions no one thought to ask until it was too late. But Brockes, whose book is illustrated with potent family snapshots dating back to the ’30s, has wrought from this an intelligent, often dryly funny page turner that is as steadily affectionate as it is occasionally heartbreaking.
“It made my mother and me laugh — the idea of going around the world looking for people you are related to,” she writes. This is, of course, exactly what Brockes has done, searching for her mother inside a culture she does not know. It seems she’s found her.
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.