Faber & Faber £16.99

Review: She Left Me the Gun - My Mother's Life Before Me, By Emma Brockes

Every picture tells two sides of a story

Emma Brockes's memoir opens with a photo of her mother Paula as a bonnet-clad baby, sitting in the South African sun with her parents and Bonza the dog. So far, so idyllic. But turn the page and a very different reality hits home: Paula's father was a convicted murderer – and a bad poet, to boot. That jarring juxtaposition sets the book's tone: family photos appear throughout the pages, each one a slice of startling normality in a tale of which Brockes's mother had always promised: "One day I will tell you the story of my life, and you will be amazed."

Instead, dying in 2003, Paula left the story for her daughter to tell. Brockes shares what she originally knew (Paula emigrated to England in 1960 via a £5 ticket which included a one-week stay in an Earl's Court hostel and a West End show; she had seven half-siblings; she had her father arrested when she was in her mid-twenties) then fills in the details.

How Brockes's mother took a traumatic childhood in South Africa and turned it into a tranquil English village life is the stuff of hope, renewal, tenacious sibling camaraderie and a critical element of resistance. We get the picture, skilfully painted, of an entertaining mother with a cheeky sense of humour: Paula gleefully blacked out politicians' teeth in the newspaper; chased lizards with her daughter; and maintained a healthy distrust of certain things British – boarding schools, the royals, cooked fruit. "Undervaluing oneself," Brockes learned from her mother, "was not permissible."

What Brockes didn't realise was just how far her mother's gift extended: "Her aim – to protect me from being poisoned by the poison in her system – depended for its success on its invisibility."

This book is her mother's story but it's also about Brockes, a seasoned journalist, pursuing that story, and the process is gripping. Driven by a palpable mixture of reluctance and determination, Brockes interviews family members about intimacies and terrors, uncovering rifts, secrets and in-jokes. They all contribute, bit by individual bit, starting off with gentle questions such as "How much did your mom tell you?", and painting chilling scenes: "You'd come home from school," says Brockes's Uncle Steve, "never knowing who'd be alive or dead." Another uncle, Tony, shares his memories in a casino, Celine Dion playing in the background. His words are the most forthcoming, riveting, horrifying – and the most redeeming: "We grew up in a hell of a problem situation, but there was love. You can endure so much – violence, poverty – if there is love. Paula loved us."

There's plenty of colour in the family's history – I especially liked the Dutch granny who was forced to move from civilised Holland to gold-rush Johannesburg and took to wearing a widow's cap long before her husband died – but what's truly affecting here is the way in which a daughter comes to recognise the full extent of her mother's resilience.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas