- Paperback: 240 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 1 edition (May 13, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375713468
- ISBN-13: 978-0375713460
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,609,813 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood Paperback – May 13, 2003
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“Searing…. [Slaughter] captures the dark beautfy of her adopted homeland, and her passion for its is contagious.” –The Boston Globe
“Remarkable. . . . Written with such beauty, courage, and truthfulness that it will rank with other masterpieces about life in Africa.” –The Times (London)
“A haunting evocation of her fraught family life in Africa’s Kalahari Desert. . . . Slaughter summons both the terrible secrecy and the wonder of her childhood.” –O, The Oprah Magazine
“Slaughter conveys the dangerous unforgiving landscape of the Kalahari Desert with searing immediacy.” -Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Searing. . . . Slaughter balances moments of tranquility with those of devastation, making this brave memoir engrossing.” —Vogue
“Two lives merge here, one of incredible beauty and one of incredible pain. . . . Slaughter has succeeded in penning a chilling and compelling exorcism.” —Publishers Weekly
“Slaughter writes with grace and psychological insight about a bygone era and the tragic circumstances of her childhood.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Like the best memoirs—The Liars’ Club, Angela’s Ashes, Girl Interrupted—Before the Knife melds the power of a true story with literary techniques . . . Masterfully, she finally gives voice to the scream she describes as lodged in her throat.” —Camden Courier-Post
“Before the Knife is as sharp as a blade and its spare beautiful prose goes right through your heart. Rarely have I read such an honest memoir, as merciless as the blinding light of the African bush.” —Francesca Marciano, author of Rules of the Wild
“A book that will rank with Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing as one of the great books about [the] subcontinent, and about the passing of a colonial era whose scares still linger.” —Cape Times
From the Inside Flap
In this unforgettable memoir, acclaimed novelist Carolyn Slaughter recalls her childhood in Africa and how the land itself released her from a rage that threatened to destroy her.
For Carolyn Slaughter, who grew up in Botswana in the 1950s, it was the Kalahari Desert that made life bearable. Her father was a cruel and violent district commissioner during the last days of British colonial rule, and their family's stiff English facade masked an unspeakable household secret. But out in the bush, the intensity of the air and the beauty of the landscape touched her with a kind of feverish grace. She would disappear for hours to watch the flat brown river with its water lilies and crocodiles; the thorn trees and the flocks of flamingos; the local women with their babies strapped to their backs. Filled with the majesty and splendor of the ever-changing desert, Before The Knife" is the deeply moving story of a girl who endured and transcended her family's violence to emerge an impassioned observer and explicator of her world.
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The story itself is very interesting and although it has tragic elements, it is NOT depressing. I am recommending this book highly. I wish the author would write more.
Carolyn Slaughter's life, though not fully acknowledged in the book, could only have been lived in a narrow window of history. The British Empire, always eager to install a white face in a position of colonial authority where people of race might not be trusted, elevated many lower middle class émigrés to effective aristocracy. It meant that they could only feel at home, that is, only attain the status they assumed, if they lived outside of the Sceptred Isle. Carolyn's mother had been born and brought up in India. She had grown used to a life with servants, where sewing, cooking and cleaning could be delegated to the competent. This created time for the important things in life, like deciding what to wear for dinner, what would go with what, and whether the lunch invitees would gel. Not that there were many expatriates to invite in the Kalahari Desert.
Carolyn Slaughter seems to have lived an itinerant's life. More significantly she seems to have adopted an itinerant relationship with life. It happened as a result of denial, as a result of not accepting or acknowledging what happened to her. The father, a shop worker back home, was a District Commissioner in the Empire when his white face provided his main qualification. His wife, Carolyn's mother, unable to accept what the daughter had told her or, indeed what evidence proved, slumped into a private depression that never left her.
The author's African childhood was almost wholly unhappy, even depressing. Her tantrums angered others, her self-abuse threatened her own life, and yet the father who was the source of the tragedy soldiered on, apparently stoically, delivering whatever duty the assumptions of Empire might demand.
There were times when I lost touch with the sense of depression and foreboding, periods in the book when I knew things were lighter and brighter than the reminiscences suggested. Occasionally, the weight being borne got too much. But then I had a happy childhood, without abuse, indeed with love, affection, and support throughout, so who am I to criticize this insight into a world I never knew?
So, towards the end of the account, when the horror of the abuse can be re-lived in later life and thus partially expunged, we can sense the destructive havoc it has wreaked through the family's life. It's a rather one-paced account, but the seriousness of its focus justifies its form.
Her father, having bullied his way through the dying days of British colonial rule in India, found he couldn't settle in England, so set off with wife and two daughters for Africa. This is far from being the 'White Mischief' kind of existence, especially as the family wound up in the Kalahari desert. The bleakness and hash beauty of the landscape are what saves Carolyn - alongside discovering one true friend at school.
Slaughter is an excellent novelist who mysteriously fell silent many years ago. This is the reason why, and every pages rings with a sort of piercing truthfulness and pain. It's a story of great courage which must have taken greater courage to write.