She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes

3 of 9
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me
320 pages; The Penguin Press
It's hard for any of us to imagine the life of our parents before...well, us. Who were these mysterious people prior to diapers, carpools and mortgages? Did they ever have a secret long-lost love? Did they travel the world? Growing up in England, Emma Brockes had only heard a few childhood stories from Paula, her sharp-witted, beloved mother, who was raised in rural South Africa. One example: "Those snakes that weren't hanging from trees waiting to drop down her back were fighting scorpions for the deed to the toe ends of her slippers." Other tales involve hailstorms and practical jokes. But about Paula's family? Nothing. When Paula dies of lung cancer, however, Emma goes back to unearth the secrets of her mother's past.

Listening to one person tell another person's story can be boring; immediacy, after all, is the key to a compelling narrative. But Brockes nails you to each page. The truths she discovers about her mother's life are horrifying—but always told with humor, pathos and such brilliant, apply-to-all-of-us sentences as the one about "people whom you can't be alone in a room with because their pain is your own." Ultimately, however, this memoir belongs not to Brockes but to Paula. How did one woman survive such abuse and degradation, only to emerge not just alive, but loving? What distinguishes those who recover and those who fall down and often, in falling down, drag everyone else down with them? Perhaps the answer to these questions is found in a story told by Paula's younger sister: When all the children in the family bought Paula pink silk pajamas for her 21st birthday, she was so delighted that she stripped down immediately and walked out of the house, the young kids screaming with delight. "Everything that matters," says that younger sister, "came from her."
— Leigh Newman