She Left Me the Gun

About the book:
When Emma Brockes was ten years old, her mother said 'One day I will tell you the story of my life and you will be amazed.' Growing up in a tranquil English village, Emma knew very little of her mother's life before her.

She knew Paula had grown up in South Africa and had seven siblings.

She had been told stories about deadly snakes and hailstones the size of golf balls. There was mention, once, of a trial. But most of the past was a mystery. When her mother dies of cancer, Emma - by then a successful journalist at the Guardian - is free to investigate the untold story.

Her search begins in the Colindale library but then takes her to South Africa, to the extended family she has never met and their accounts of a childhood so different to her own.

She encounters versions of the life her mother chose to leave behind - and realises what a gift her mother gave her.

Thanks to the publishers, we have an exclusive extract below.

If You Think That’s Aggressive, Then You Really Haven’t Lived

My mother first tried to tell me about her life when I was about ten years old. I was sitting at the table doing homework or a drawing; she was standing at the grill cooking sausages.

Every now and then the fat from the meat would catch and a flame leap out.

She had been threatening some kind of revelation for years.

‘One day I will tell you the story of my life,’ she said, ‘and you will be amazed.’

I had looked at her in amazement. The story of her life was she was born, she had me, ten years passed, end of story.

‘Tell me now,’ I’d said.

‘I’ll tell you when you’re older.’

A second later, I’d considered saying ‘Am I old enough now?’ but the joke hadn’t seemed worth it. Anything constituting a Life Story would deviate from the norm in ways that could only embarrass me.

I knew, of course, that she had come from South Africa and had left behind a large family: seven half-siblings, eight if you included a boy who’d died, ten if you counted the rumour of twins. ‘You should have been a twin,’ said my mother whenever I did something brilliant, like open my mouth or walk across a room. ‘I hoped you’d be twins, with auburn hair.

You could have been. Twins run in the family on both sides.’

And, ‘My stepmother was pregnant with twins, once.’ There were no twins among her siblings.

She always referred to her like this, as ‘my stepmother’, and unlike her siblings, for whom she provided short but vivid character sketches, and even her father, who featured in the odd story, Marjorie was a blank.

 As for her real mother’s family, all she would say was, ‘Strong women, strong genes,’ and give me one of her looks – a cross between Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here – that shut down the possibility of further discussion.

It wasn’t evident from her accent that she came from elsewhere.

In fact, years later, a colleague answering my phone at work said afterwards, ‘Your mother has the poshest voice I’ve ever heard.’ I couldn’t hear it, but I could see it written down, in the letters she drafted on the backs of old gas bills.

It was there in words like ‘satisfactory’ (great English compliment) and ‘peculiar’ (huge insult). ‘Diana,’ she wrote to her friend Joan in 1997, ‘such a pretty girl, but such a sad life.’

She was imperiously English to her friends and erstwhile family in South Africa, but to me, at home, she was caustic about the English. The worst insult she could muster was, ‘You’re so English.’

This extract was published with permission from Faber and Faber and Book Promotions

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