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Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

Before the Knife (2002)

by Carolyn Slaughter

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3. Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

I'm not sure what Carolyn Slaughter intends us (the readers) to take away from her memoir. She tells us on page 4 that she was "first" raped by her father when she was 6 years old. Then there is no further reference to this until the epilogue, when she briefly describes how years later as an adult she remembered the incident. In between, she tells the story of her childhood, with a father who was admittedly cruel and distant, and who was a colonial administrator in what is now Botswana, and a mother who was about as emotionally distant as you can be from a child and still claim to be a mother. Definitely a dysfunctional family, but without knowledge of the rape there is not enough context to explain the author's rage and rebellion from the time she was a small child. So is this a book about incest and the damage it does? Is it meant to be about recovered memories? If so, there is little analysis or context provided for either. Maybe it's just a book about an unhappy childhood.

I've seen this book described as a brilliant evocation of a childhood in the beautiful African landscape. There may have been glimpses of that, but for the most part the evocation didn't reach me. If you're looking for evocations of African childhoods of British colonials read Doris Lessing (fiction and non fiction or Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. I really didn't like this book.

2 stars ( )
  arubabookwoman | Jan 16, 2016 |
Before the Knife is a very quick read. Sometimes I felt I was reading fast because I wanted to get through the truly disturbing parts. In truth they were always there, lurking behind the words Slaughter didn't say, or worse, only alluded to. Because Slaughter announces early on, in the preface, that she was raped by her father the knowledge is out. "...the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me" (p 4). However, she promises her story is not about that horror in particular. True to her word, Before the Knife isn't about that trauma but having announced it, we readers are always aware of it. We translate innuendo to mean abuse every time. The story of an African childhood is lost to the knowledge something darker is at play. What a different book this would have been if we didn't know! As expected Slaughter comes back full circle to the first night of the rape, describing it in more detail. Why, I do not know. The entire book is a tangled and confused mess of emotions. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Oct 27, 2012 |
Ow, a very painful book to read. I am unwilling to say it's a bad book but it feels more like viewing someone elses private therapy - I am glad that she has the courage to come through but it's painfully obvious how much damage has been done. I also found the anti-colonialism a bit heavy handed but given her experiences it could be a metaphore for what happened to her personally. One of my friends favourite books but I wouldn't rate it so for me. Interesting and sad. ( )
  Figgles | May 8, 2009 |
intelligently and beautifully written. picturesque descriptions of african landscape. extremely disturbing content re author's tortured relationship with her abusive father and negligent mother. context is not for the faint of heart. very moving story of overcoming great odds set in africa. ( )
  melmg | Mar 16, 2008 |
Showing 4 of 4
It is not being fanciful to suggest that Slaughter sees her abusive childhood as a metaphor for the rape of Africa by white male colonialists. This grandiosity is partly the fault of the memoir form itself: so many appalling stories have been told and sold that this bankable genre is always looking deeper into the heart of darkness. In Africa, Slaughter finds a setting for what - for all its descriptive highs and politically recriminatory lows - is a story of surviving child abuse.
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What I want back is what I was
Before the bed, before the knife.

Sylvia Plath
For Leita, at long last. And for Kemp, who endured.
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This is a memoir about my childhood in a particular part of Africa called the Kalahari Desert.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0552999881, Paperback)

Carolyn Slaughter is the author of ten novels, but for the last 12 years she has been completely silent. She had become conscious that there was something hidden in her past that had always haunted her fiction but which she had never fully faced. This memoir is the result of confronting the truth about her traumatic childhood. Carolyn's father was in the colonial service, but he lacked power and was ashamed of his Irish origins. In private, he was capable of acts of absolute sadism. When Carolyn was small, they lived comfortably in Swaziland having left India during the Partition. But when she turned six, things changed. Her mother gave birth to another daughter and they were posted to a remote area in the Kalahari desert. Bereft of a civilized social life, her mother plunged into a deep depression and turned completely away from Carolyn. While her older sister found friends and left for boarding school, Carolyn suffered a desperate sense of abandonment and loss and turned to the landscape of the Kalahari itself for solace. The stark fact that Carolyn was first raped by her father at the age of six is contained within the prologue and epilogue of this book. What lies in between is the story of an extraordinary childhood in Africa and a moving depiction of the complexities at the root of our relationships with mother, father, siblings

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:57 -0400)

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Unforgettable portrait of the beauty and brutality of her African childhood.

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