The riveting memoir about how a prizewinning British journalist reclaimed her mother's traumatic past.
Brockes’ mother, Paula, was notoriously reticent about the years she had spent growing up in Durban, South Africa. Her family and friends knew that Paula had expatriated to England in 1960 for political reasons but not much else. Among the few things she brought with her from South Africa was a handgun that Brockes discovered “wrapped in a pair of knickers.” Paula considered the gun among her prized possessions but never explained why it meant so much to her. After Paula died of cancer, her daughter decided to learn about the South African side of her family and the life story her mother had suppressed. A database search in England unearthed evidence that her mother’s father, Jimmy, had been on trial for murder six years before Paula had been born. Despite misgivings that continued research into her mother’s past was “unfair, unethical [and] possibly unforgivable,” Brockes traveled to Johannesburg to talk to the maternal relatives she had never met and search through government archives for more details about her grandfather. Her aunts and uncles remembered the family patriarch as a drunken “psychopath” who brutalized his children. Paula, on the other hand, was the heroic elder sibling who called her younger brothers and sisters her babies and tried to protect them against her father's savagery by shooting him. Court records revealed still more: that Jimmy had also been tried and later acquitted for molesting his daughters.
The story of Brockes’ quest to understand her mother’s past is powerful on its own, but the backdrop against which most of the narrative unfolds—a country with its own history of rapacious violence—makes the book even more poignant and unforgettable.