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.