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Before the Knife (2002)

by Carolyn Slaughter

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644314,714 (3.46)7
What happened to me affected all of us—my mother, my father, my sisters, and me: we all fell apart under the horror of it, and we all tried to pretend that there was no horror. Before the Knifeis an unforgettable story—a transcendent memoir—of the beauty and brutality in a young girl’s African childhood and of the ways she found to survive it. When Carolyn Slaughter was nearly four, she and her family moved from England to a remote outpost in the Kalahari Desert. There she was surrounded by a landscape of incomparable splendor and violence. Majestic rivers formed overnight; flocks of flamingos and herds of game gathered with equal speed to partake of the sudden waters. Termite mounds grew to the height of trees. A crocodile could drag a child from the riverbank in a second. And the author herself became the victim of an unspeakable crime. Slaughter takes us deep into her experience of Africa and of herself at a time of anguish, but also of recovery. As she has said, “I couldn’t take my eyes off Africa. And what I saw was so beautiful that it enabled me not merely to survive, but also to find a way to save my soul.”Before the Knifeis 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.… (more)

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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 |
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What I want back is what I was
Before the bed, before the knife.

Sylvia Plath
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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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What happened to me affected all of us—my mother, my father, my sisters, and me: we all fell apart under the horror of it, and we all tried to pretend that there was no horror. Before the Knifeis an unforgettable story—a transcendent memoir—of the beauty and brutality in a young girl’s African childhood and of the ways she found to survive it. When Carolyn Slaughter was nearly four, she and her family moved from England to a remote outpost in the Kalahari Desert. There she was surrounded by a landscape of incomparable splendor and violence. Majestic rivers formed overnight; flocks of flamingos and herds of game gathered with equal speed to partake of the sudden waters. Termite mounds grew to the height of trees. A crocodile could drag a child from the riverbank in a second. And the author herself became the victim of an unspeakable crime. Slaughter takes us deep into her experience of Africa and of herself at a time of anguish, but also of recovery. As she has said, “I couldn’t take my eyes off Africa. And what I saw was so beautiful that it enabled me not merely to survive, but also to find a way to save my soul.”Before the Knifeis 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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