The late Nora Ephron suggested the title for Emma Brockes’s She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me (Faber & Faber 340pp £16.99). Ephron – probably known best for When Harry Met Sally – was as smart as they come in Hollywood and you only need to read the opening chapters to understand why she took such a close interest in the career of this remarkable young writer and Guardian journalist.
The book traces the life of Brockes’s mother, Paula, whose early life in South Africa was a grim struggle to bring up her seven siblings while attempting to protect them from the systematic drunken abuse of their father. Emma’s detective work starts when her mother dies of cancer and it takes her on two extended trips to South Africa.
‘Like most children’, she writes, ‘the life my parents led before I was born was a rumour I didn’t believe in.’ In South Africa she tracks down her mother’s siblings with different degrees of success and anguish: ‘There are people you can’t be in the same room with because their pain is your own.’
She finally uncovers the details of an old court case and the trial of her grandfather – I am avoiding a spoiler here – which involved his children. In her anger at her grandfather she allows herself a brief moment of unfiltered anger: ‘Right you fucker, you can answer to me.’
But it isn’t just the story itself that sets this book apart. Brockes’s prose is potent enough to do justice to the power of her insights. And although she is very good at maintaining the tension in the detective part of the story, she has an even more important ability to keep up the emotional suspense. Ephron, her mentor, would have approved.
In The Scientists: A Family Romance (Union Books 196pp £14.99), Marco Roth mentions he lives in groovy Brooklyn quite a lot and you get the feeling he does so for that same reason that Victoria Beckham never smiles in photographs. Emma Brockes also lives in New York (no specific district is mentioned) and Roth could do worse than hook up with her and learn a thing or two about really good writing. This would be ironic because a minor theme of his memoir is literary theory. Roth’s overweening confidence appears to stem from his upbringing among the intellectual elite of the Upper East Side. His scientist father, who is dying of Aids, which he claims to have caught in the course of his research, teaches Roth to keep that secret and to show off to the grown-ups by using long words wherever possible.
His father later threatens to cut off Roth’s inheritance if he doesn’t go to a college he approves of. When his father dies, Roth is annoyed that his aunt is writing a memoir of the family that includes an alternative, more troubling explanation for his father’s disease. He agonises about whether he should write his own book and, meanwhile, starts a literary magazine using the inheritance from the father he never even liked.
There is an extraordinary insouciance about Roth that makes this book revealing in unintended and comical ways. His self-importance crashes into the earthy facts of the world. At one point, while sitting in a café in Morocco reading a second-hand copy of André Gide’s L’Immoraliste, he tries to engage a friendly if bemused young Berber about the politics of nationalism. The Berber listens politely and then asks a startled Roth if he would like to ‘fuck him in the arse’.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is justifiably regarded as one of America’s finest young writers and in Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son (Yellow Jersey Press 259pp £12.99) there is no sign of him suffering from the self-regard that hampers Marco Roth. His phenomenal success with Pulphead, a collection of long-form journalism, will ensure that his ready-made fan base has little trouble with the oddity of this book, in which the theme of the relationship between father and son is eccentrically coupled with that between man and horse. Sullivan’s father was a celebrated old-school sportswriter who loved cigarettes and, of course, horses. In 2000 Sullivan the younger decided to investigate the equine obsession, travelling across the US and through time, and discovering the full depth of the human-horse partnership. It’s a daring approach combining memoir and reportage and, beneath it all, the autobiographical theme of his attempt to understand his father, but it works magnificently. I suspect there is more to come on the matter of Mike, the father he is pursuing here.
Privately, the Old Etonians in government used to call Margaret Thatcher the ‘Pound Coin’ – ‘thick and brassy and thinks she is a sovereign’. In Maggie & Me (Bloomsbury 245pp £14.99), Damian Barr is let in on this secret during dinner with somebody highly placed in Thatcher’s government. The elderly grandee confides in Barr that she had changed his life by singling him out for promotion because of his grammar school background and qualities that reminded her of herself.
What is, perhaps, more surprising is that she also changed Barr’s life for the better. On the face of it – as an impoverished, gay child from a union town – he would have seen her as his natural enemy. Instead we are treated to a nuanced, subtle and original account of being one of Thatcher’s children. What could have been a flip idea with no real substance turns out to be a memoir which is both personally moving and a valuable historical document. Barr’s style is conversational, intimate and convincing, and he resists every opportunity to show off. He holds his nerve in tackling the unfashionableness of his thesis – that Thatcher inspired even those she seemed to despise – and makes us smile along the way.
Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives (Picador 214pp £20) is in a different league to all of these. Hemon, for whom English is a second language, has been compared to two great linguistic refu-gees, Nabokov and Conrad, and this book suggests there is some justice in the comparison.
He grew up in Sarajevo but was in Chicago in 1992 when the war broke out in which the Serbian regime launched a genocidal assault on Bosnia’s Muslims and besieged Hemon’s hometown for four years. He stayed in America and set himself the task of achieving literary proficiency in English. He did so triumphantly and this memoir follows two collections of short stories and two novels.
It is not a story of a life, but rather a series of chapters that demonstrate precisely that there is never a simple life story. War’s disruptions make this apparent. Perhaps the most astonishing chapter tells the story of the professor who taught him literature at Sarajevo University. He was a great teacher but, when war broke out, he emerged as a leading Serbian nationalist. This transformation forces Hemon to reconsider every-thing he thought he knew about literature and life.
He also covers dogs, food and football. He is a writer in love with ordinary life and the disruptions he experienced were evidently painful. But all that pain is nothing next to the agony that he harrowingly describes in the last chapter, entitled ‘The Aquarium’. This is about the slow death of his youngest daughter at the age of one from a brain tumour. It makes for very difficult reading. Aleksandar Hemon is a substantial writer.