She Left Me the Gun

The GunNeither the title nor this book cover would normally attract me towards picking up this book, however it was through neither of those avenues that I came to hear about the book. It was a random tweet that included the following:

Any sentence that contains the words “Maya Angelou and Emma Brockes, who both…” works for me.

I was reading Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom at the time and so wondered who Emma Brockes was, intrigued by the reader’s comment implying she’d enjoy curling up with both books. I saw that Brockes had published a memoir about her mother and then read an excellent article in The Guardian, where it turns out Emma Brockes works (in the New York office).

Emma Brockes was born in England, her mother leaving her own country of birth South Africa in her early twenties. After some years living in London, she met her husband and they moved to an English village. She was a mature mother, having her only child later in life and lived a quite routine-lead life with her small family and had a job doing accounts for a jeweller in a neighbouring town.

Brockes recalls her mother mentioning that she’d one day tell her about her life in South Africa before coming to England, however the daughter didn’t press her mother and that moment of revelation never arrived. Apart from a couple of offhand comments hinting at some dark past and a court case, any opportunity to quietly share her past with her daughter in her later years was cut short by her illness and premature death, a time when the days seemed better spent just appreciating each other’s company.

It seemed absurd at this stage to ruin what time we had left with painful and long-avoided subjects.

Whether it was the journalist instinct or some kind of closure in making an effort to understand her mother more fully, Brockes decides to find out what it was that drove her mother to abandon her family and her country and never look back.

Jo'burg High Court

Jo’burg High Court

Knowing there was a court case against her grandfather and using her journalistic knowledge and access to resources, she searches archives, only to discover an earlier judgement, one that preceded his marriage to her grandmother, a murder conviction.

She requests the file to be sent to her and then discovers the second court case, in which mother is named in bringing a charge against her own father. The file is too large, so she makes plans to visit South Africa to do her research and to meet the numerous family members, her mother’s half sisters and brothers, the seven aunts and uncles who live there.

When she was in her mid-twenties, she said, she’d had her father arrested. There had been a highly publicized court case, during which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness-box and destroying them one by one. Her stepmother had covered for him. He had been found not guilty.

Emma Brockes

Emma Brockes

This is a book that once started is hard to put down, the way Emma Brockes writes, it is as if you are on the same journey, with the same feeling of curiosity tempered by an instinct not to get too involved.

In fact, for me there was a turning point somewhere in her travels, just when she starts to become part of a local crowd of journalists, when she begins to become part of the weave of family fabric, when it felt like it was time to get out. That while she was there and had a clear purpose and was fulfilling some kind of tribute to her mother, all was well, but that getting any further involved might in some way rub something into her that her mother had spent a lifetime trying to protect her from.

She was right to leave when she did.

And the gun? Well you know whenever a gun is mentioned, a shot must be fired and so it was, yet while the title stretches the truth somewhat, all must be forgiven, since it was suggested to the author by the late Nora Ephron, another fitting tribute.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

15 thoughts on “She Left Me the Gun

  1. I just read a review of this book. Can’t remember whether it was in The NY Times or Brain Pickings. I put it my list of books to consider buying but now you’ve just sealed the deal. I’ll be going to the book store.


  2. A strange thing happened today. A little while back I stumbled upon this title and it intrigued me. And then I saw your review of the same book! Isn’t that awesome? 🙂

    This look like quite a powerful book. The description of the father destroying his children in court disturbs me. I hope the book has a happy ending. I don’t know whether looking into the past and searching for the truth is good, because sometimes what comes out is too difficult to handle. I hope Emma Brockes found what she was looking for. I want to read this book. Thanks for inspiring me, Claire.


    • I love it when that happens, when a book title comes into our consciousness and then someone we know or follow reviews it. I felt like that after reading about Edmund De Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth and her manuscript of a novel inspired by her return to Vienna after the war, in his own book The Hare With Amber Eyes, not realising that it was in the process of being published. I then read a review of The Exiles Return and was amazed to discover it was already available to read!


  3. Hi Claire, This makes me want to read more books, but am going to take ages reading birds without wings which I am enjoying. Rod is home safely after the Field days nod helping David. Bless him, he brought a lovely stem of orchids to give Danera. Who are you supporting tonight in rugby? Love, Helen

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Thanks for sharing this book Claire. I love a good memoir and this one sounds intriguing. My mother also became ill and died without sharing all the secrets she always hinted at, but I don’t think hers were quite as explosive as the ones Emma Brockes’ mother had. I will definitely seek this one out. The cover does look strangely dangerous or a memoir about a family secret.


    • Emma Brockes was fortunate her mother came from such a large family, all of whom could share their own experiences (where they remembered) and give her some idea of her mother’s past. So many stories and secrets are never shared and remain a mystery.

      It almost seems to be better to learn about the past once we have experienced much of life already, those like Maya Angelou who write about mothers, do so with such great wisdom and tremendous compassion, avoiding the easy trap of youth in wanting to ascribe blame for the effects on their own lives of those challenges a parent may have had to deal with. I find myself more interested now in the wisdom of looking back with compassion than the more shocking type of memoir, that tends to sensationalise behaviour.


  5. Like you, I’m not sure I’d pick up the book either. I am never sure how I feel about the ‘Mommy Dearest’ type stories. I respect each of us has a story and place we hail from, but I often wonder if the past is worth reliving without a compassionate eye. Having said that, I realize we all have a story to tell and for some it’s only path to forgiveness.


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