May 24, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

She Left Me the Gun

Current Status
In Season
Emma Brockes
We gave it an A

Don’t scratch if it itches. No whining. Look lively or die. Those were the aphorisms Paula Brockes liked to reel off briskly to her only child, Emma, whom she raised in a village an hour outside London. Paula was from South Africa, and professed little love for her adopted country. She had nothing but tart disdain for ”the royals, hypocrisy, fat ankles” — but she heaped the most scorn on the country’s famous emotional reserve. ”She said the English never talked about anything. Not like us. We talked about everything.” Well, not quite everything. As Brockes writes in her luminous memoir, She Left Me the Gun, ”We talked a blue streak around the things we didn’t talk about.”

After Paula died, Brockes, a journalist, began puzzling over the gaps in their conversations. Paula had rarely talked about her own father, Jimmy. Once she described him as an alcoholic and a pedophile; another time she said she’d brought charges against him. But when Brockes dipped into the online South African judicial database, all she discovered was that her grandfather had been convicted of murder. So she traveled to South Africa and teased out the family story. Jimmy had sexually abused not only Paula but her half sisters too — and had avoided conviction when Paula’s stepmother refuted the children’s claims in court.

She Left Me the Gun is devastating in some places and angry in others. What binds the book together isn’t a sordid drama but the indomitable spirit of a mother who refused to let the past poison her daughter: ”If the landscape that eventually emerged can be visualized as the bleakest thing I know — a British beach in winter — she stood around me like a windbreak so that all I saw was colors.” A

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