Though told from Emma’s point of view, the book is really about her mother Paula, who was born and raised in South Africa but emigrated to England as an adult. After arriving in London, she got married, had her daughter, moved to the country, and lived out a normal, sedate village life. It was only after her mother died that Emma started looking into some of the vague things that her mother had said about her past. It takes Emma a fair amount of research, including multiple trips to South Africa and visits with extended family, to piece together exactly what happened to her mother before she got to England, and I’ll just say that very little of it was good.
The book goes into some detail about what happened to Paula, and offers an intriguing glimpse into everyday life in modern South Africa, as Emma ends up spending a great deal of time there meeting family and doing research. But the real heart of the book seems to be Emma trying to get her head around both who her mother was, and how much of the past she has the right and/or responsibility to know. Her mother kept this information from Emma for her whole life, and clearly wanted her to be as protected as possible; by discovering the truth, does Emma undo her mother’s work? Did Emma really know her mother, if she knows nothing of the first 30 years of her life and the momentous events that shaped her? (Emma does a great job of explaining that kid feeling of, “My mom was born, and then she had me. The end.”) And after her mother has died, does Emma have an obligation to learn what happened, so that SOMEONE knows exactly what her mother had to overcome?
The biggest question asked here, though, is just how does someone start over again? No matter the specifics of what happened to Paula, the upshot is that at 30 years old she walked away from a troubled life in South Africa and started all over again in London. She got married, had a child, and remained, as her daughter describes her, a vibrant, funny, functional person. How does someone do that? How could Paula do it when so many others couldn’t? The book doesn’t really answer that, of course. It’s a bigger mystery than one book can solve and Paula herself isn’t around to offer her thoughts. I wish she were, because she sounds like she would have been a riot, even if she couldn’t tell you how she did this magic act of creating a new life.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Inconclusive, but satisfying.
You might also like: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, another memoir by a daughter that is (largely) about her mother. In this case, the unknowable part seems to be how Walls ended up so functional when her mother was so dysfunctional, but it addresses some of the same key questions about how you construct a life.