Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood

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Press:Alfred A. Knopf Knopf; 1 edition (May 7, 2002)
ISBN:9780375413971
Author Name:Slaughter, Carolyn
Pages:222
Language:English

Content

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 Knife is 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 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.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-As a child, Slaughter was raped repeatedly by her father, beginning when she was six years old. 
Born in India about the time of independence, she and her family soon traveled back to England along with the rest of the British colonialists, where her father determined he could not live without the incipient power held by minor bureaucrats in colonial service to the Queen.
In short order, Slaughter, her older sister, and her mother were following him to Africa, to the Kalahari Desert and the British protectorate known today as Botswana.
Her mother's recurring depressions, worsened by the birth of a third daughter, and her father's frustration and anger with the approaching end of British colonialism and his own mental illness, led to the incest and eventual violence between him and his daughter.
Slaughter's style is lyrical and haunting.
In beautifully painted prose, she conveys her great love for the magnificence of Africa.
Readers are shown how she sought solace from her environment in an effort to blot out the pain of her father's betrayal and her mother's refusal to acknowledge the abuse.
As if piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, readers come to understand the author's actions.
Handled with dignity, the story tells of survival and strength in the 1950s but it is relevant today.Carol DeAngelo, Kings Park Library, Burke, VACopyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

This is the painful story of an anguished child and a  dysfunctional family set against the social backdrop of an  unraveling colonial structure. 
Slaughter (Dreams of the Kalahari) returns to the writing scene after years of absence to tell the story of a tortured childhood spent in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, where her family moved from England when she was four.
In plain yet piercing language, she recounts how the callous and incestuous acts of an authoritarian father, the resignation of a delusional mother, and the pretentiousness of a colonial lifestyle viciously shattered a young white girl's innocence and happiness.
There are moments of beauty and redemption most notably when Slaughter writes of her infatuation with Africa's natural beauty ("I couldn't take my eyes off Africa") but it is her anger that permeates the narrative.
Slaughter's intense hatred for her father and horror at her childhood are present in every recollection, constantly reverberating with a bitterness that inadvertently threatens the credibility of her story.
Still, this is a candid memoir that takes the reader into the inner world of colonial functionaries, exposing their prejudices and vices and detailing their trials and fears.
Recommended for public libraries.
Edward K.
Owusu-Ansah, CUNY Coll.
of Staten Island Lib.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Slaughter's beautiful, raw memoir is an exercise in both revelation and reserve. 
Slaughter spent most of her childhood in various locations in 1950s colonial Africa, where her family moved when she was three years old.
Her childhood was anything but idyllic: her mother, suffering from depression, was withdrawn and often cruel; her father a sadistic, brutal man who raped Slaughter when she was six.
Even her sisters--her aloof older sister, Andrea, and younger sister, Susan--offered little comfort.
And the various schools Slaughter and Angela attended were sources of misery, too, until Slaughter became a ringleader and befriended an older girl who represented her ideal.
Slaughter also found solace in her beautiful surroundings--a tree that provided an excellent view, a river that mysteriously waxed and waned, and, for a brief sojourn, a farm with a kind family Slaughter wished her own was more like.
Difficult to read at times, this is a powerful, affecting memoir of both a deeply troubled family and the final years of colonialism in Africa.
Kristine HuntleyCopyright © American Library Association.
All rights reserved

Review

"Carolyn Slaughter's astonishing memoir is seductive and exquisitely rendered. 
She draws us into a world full of beauty and terror, the corrosive power of family secrets, and her stubborn and inspiring will to survive.
An extraordinary achievement." --Esmeralda Santiago"Two rivers of memory form the parallel universes of this beautiful memoir of childhood: growing up in Africa as the child of a minor colonial administrator during the unraveling of the British Empire; and growing up unmothered in a family of daughters governed by a savage father.
It is eerily the world of Sylvia Plath’s disturbing poem “Daddy,” brought to life with an astounding lack of self-pity and a writerly gift for endowing the personal story with gripping social realism." --Diane Middlebrook"In Before the Knife,Carolyn Slaughter has beautifully -- and daringly -- conjured up her African childhood.
Hers is a story of the familial secrets that can build around one horrendous act and the terribly misunderstandings, regrets and recriminations that result.
The memoir is also a lyrical recreation of the land, which -- like those who dwell upon it -- cannot be tamed, suppressed or possessed.
The utter brutality of the landscape is matched only by that of the Slaughter family." --Lisa See 

From the Inside Flap

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 Knife is 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 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.

From the Back Cover

"Carolyn Slaughter's astonishing memoir is seductive and exquisitely rendered. 
She draws us into a world full of beauty and terror, the corrosive power of family secrets, and her stubborn and inspiring will to survive.
An extraordinary achievement." --Esmeralda Santiago"Two rivers of memory form the parallel universes of this beautiful memoir of childhood: growing up in Africa as the child of a minor colonial administrator during the unraveling of the British Empire; and growing up unmothered in a family of daughters governed by a savage father.
It is eerily the world of Sylvia Plath’s disturbing poem “Daddy,” brought to life with an astounding lack of self-pity and a writerly gift for endowing the personal story with gripping social realism." --Diane Middlebrook"In Before the Knife,Carolyn Slaughter has beautifully -- and daringly -- conjured up her African childhood.
Hers is a story of the familial secrets that can build around one horrendous act and the terribly misunderstandings, regrets and recriminations that result.
The memoir is also a lyrical recreation of the land, which -- like those who dwell upon it -- cannot be tamed, suppressed or possessed.
The utter brutality of the landscape is matched only by that of the Slaughter family." --Lisa See 

About the Author

Carolyn Slaughter was born in New Delhi, India, and spent most of her childhood in the Kalahari Desert of what is now Botswana. 
Soon after leaving Africa in 1961, she wrote what would later become her highly acclaimed novel Dreams of the Kalahari.
She followed this with eight more novels.
After living for many years in London, she moved to the United States with her family in 1986.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One~I was going to say that my first memory of our life in Africa was at Riley's Hotel in Maun, at the top of Botswana, on the edge of the Okavango Delta. 
But that isn't so.
It's just that I tend to skip over the first place we lived in, as if I'm still trying to forget it the way I did then.
That way, for a short while, it can seem, just like the first time, somehow not to have happened at all.
Old defenses rush to the rescue so that even now, whenever I think of our life in Africa, I go directly to the Kalahari.
I blot out the years from three to six, when my mother and I were like the first finger and thumb of a glove that held me safely in place in the world, and gave her a measure of safety that was taken from her just as suddenly and shockingly as it was from me.Our life in Africa actually began in Swaziland-a tiny African kingdom held in the fist of the Republic of South Africa.
At that time, the British government's district commissioners oversaw the colony, and my father was sent out from England to be one of those men who strode around wearing the hard hats, khaki uniforms, and knee-length socks of the Empire.
We'd come out on the boat, and since I was only about three and a half at the time, I'm not sure how much I remember of that first sea voyage out.
I seem to see the boat pulling out of the dock at Southampton and the paper streamers connecting, for those sad, fleeting moments, those on the boat to those on the shore.
I seem to see my grandmother and my aunt far, far below, standing on the quay, stout women wearing dark clothes.
My grandmother was bitter and silent when we said good-bye; she would barely kiss us and her face was stiff with anger.
She'd been through all this before: my father had run off to India when he was twenty, leaving her and Ireland behind, vowing never to return to the miserable, rain-soaked poverty.
Now he was at it again, taking us into another exile-this time into the dark, godforsaken hell of Africa.My sister and I were born in India around the time of Partition and Independence, which came in 1947, and at the time of our births, my grandmother had reached her determined hand across the ocean, and insisted we be baptized as Catholics.
My father-deep hater of priests and the Holy Roman Church-handed us over like lambs.
Now he was trying to get away from his mother again, only this time he was escaping to Africa, and this time he wasn't going alone-he was taking my mother, my sister, and me with him.After the British had pulled up stakes from India and headed home to England, my father hadn't been able to settle along with the rest of them.
At that time, England's overseas colonies, apart from India, were held firmly under imperial domination.
You had only to glance at an atlas to see how much of the world was painted red, the scarlet mark of British conquest and possession, the boot on the neck of the dispossessed.
And all of this vast empire was somehow, quaintly, thought of simply as England, a frontier that stretched as far as destiny was wont to go.India, in getting rid of the Empire, and splitting off Pakistan, had covered herself with a different kind of red.
My parents, who had met and married in India, had to get out with the rest of the British and make way for independence and freedom.
For England and her empire, it was the death knell, the beginning of the end, worse even than the uppityness of the wretched Boers in South Africa who'd tried the same thing some fifty years before.
In India the dream died hard.
English emotions were wrung at the death of the Raj.
With India gone, the Empire began to sink down into the sea.
In a dozen or so years, as red faded to pink, the imperial shade would be no more than a sign of decadence and corruption.
Sharp new colors and brave flags now began to flutter over colonies where once the British had played polo and instilled a certain kind of order and gentility that was better suited to Oxfordshire or Surrey.This giddy last fling of India under the Raj had got into my father's blood.
As a young man, he'd found himself with complete dominion over more than a thousand Indians, and he'd liked it.
The son of a policeman, born into poverty in Ireland in 1914, he'd found in this remote but exquisite satellite of the British Empire a place to exercise a deep need for power.
It was a heady time in India, with insurrections and sectarian uprisings stirring the hot winds of independence.
In Europe the war was raging, but my father was out of it.
In India he'd joined the British Police, and later the Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi, where he and my mother were married and my sister and I were born.
On his watch, a mighty nation was torn into two bleeding halves, and with independence, the British were thrown out, and he with them.
Before you knew it, British India was no more.When India blew up, the explosion sent the English home in ships.
They left in droves-all the bureaucracy, the government officials, the businesses, hospitals, and churches, the British Army and the British Police-the whole bang shoot-out.
They left behind them a massive barracks of soldiers who had valiantly gone wherever they were told to serve: in the Crimea, the Americas, and all the military skirmishes in Africa and Asia, as well as on the bleak battlefields of both world wars.
What England expected of her officers and subjects was courage, and what she got in exchange was conquest on the cheap.
What a sad business it was: left behind was a mighty structure, law and order forged out of anarchy and barbarism.
Left behind them also were their lovely houses drenched in bougainvillea and frangipani, and their cool verandaed cottages high in the hills.
All the English furniture they'd carted with them over the Indian Ocean was shipped home, along with the silver, crystal, and china, and the traces of Indian life, the accumulated diamonds and emeralds, the carved mahogany tables and chairs, the tiger skins, the beautiful hand-sewn clothes that we all wore.
They took with them their whole way of life, and they left in an orderly manner.
When the flag came down for the last time, there was no lack of dignity.
The British were departing, leaving behind them a job well done, a service carried out for King and Country.
They left India without remorse, leaving their atrocities mingled with the ethnic slaughters, but they knew all the same that they were being thrown out, and they couldn't quite muster up the usual resounding hoorah.As a small girl, I remember seeing pictures of Queen Victoria's Jubilees as they were celebrated in India-elephants hung with jewels, carriages carrying the viceroy, British dignitaries, and Indian maharajas and princes, tigers in cages drawn through flower-decked, cheering crowds-monarchy run amok.
Now it was over and it would never be seen again, not the way it was in India, through all those long years of Victoria's reign, where her jubilees, with their glorious excess, were celebrated in Calcutta and Delhi as splendidly as they were in Westminster.
The British understood pomp and ceremony-still do.
Nobody does it better.My father and mother left the opulence and beauty of India for a blitzed and shattered postwar England of rationing and meager opportunity; they returned to the bombed cities and crippled economy of a nation still reeling from the war, shell-shocked and impoverished.
It was another way of life gone to hell, and one my father couldn't take.
Too depressing.
What could he, in England, do with his talents for beating the natives into submission, for instilling order and respect in the barbaric hordes? He ended up in a department store in London.
He stuck it out for about a year and then we were packing up again: he'd booked passage on a ship to Africa.
My mother, who had been born in India and had spent her entire life there (a fact, along with many others, she didn't tell us for a long time), would have liked to stay in England, but that didn't count.
My father had joined the Colonial Service; he was on the run again and we went with him, my mother, my older sister, Angela, and I.The sea voyages have merged into a collective memory.
The Colonial Service sent its subjects home every few years and so we sailed back and forth on majestic Union-Castle liners that bore the names of the king's houses.
The elegant blue-white ships, with crimson and black funnels, were called Windsor, Dover, or Balmoral Castle, and they were floating palaces, beautiful in every way.
In the early days, they were part of the opening up of Africa, bringing in the mail and delivering the cargo: the cotton, the iron and steel, and the shiny new machines that were to keep the Empire running smoothly.
In the holds were plants to help the emerging fruit industry in the Cape Colony, or vines to root in the fertile new land and produce brandy and wine reminiscent of Bordeaux.
Boats like the ones we traveled in were part of the empire-building of a continent, bringing prospectors out to the Witwatersrand or the diamond mines of Kimberley.The Union-Castle mail ships sailed for Africa promptly at four p.m.
on Thursdays, and on their return, they docked at Southampton loaded with cargo, mail, and passengers just after sunrise on Fridays.
So efficient was the service that people in Cape Town set their clocks by the arrival time of the mail ships.
What I remember of these sea voyages is the cloudy seawater we bathed in, with soap that wouldn't lather, and scratchy white towels with a thin blue line at each end.
My mother scrubbed us in a tub of salty water, and poured a bucket of clear water over our heads, and then we would race down the narrow corridors in our pajamas and back to our cabin and bed.
We ate separately from the grown-ups and much earlier.
We were offered hand-painted menus that announced the Children's Evening Meal.
There was cereal or soup, white fish or lamb and vegetables, and always eggs to order.
The main course was followed by milk pudding, jelly and cream, or ice cream.
There was always plenty of brown and white bread and butter, thinly sliced, with the crusts on.
Af...

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Comment List (Total:11)

  •     In Before The Knife Carolyn Slaughter describes her childhood, a fraught, anxious prelude to an adulthood that continued to suffer from its heritage.
  •     I am not a huge fan of memoirs but my book club went through a phase of reading memoirs. After reading, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight", I became interested in Africa-based memoirs and novels. This one is the BEST. The language is very evocative - you'll hear the animals in the dessert and see them as well! The author manages this without difficult sentence structure or obscure word choices.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.
  •     An amazing story. I want to read A Black Englishman again. That will make it three times. No other author has touched me like Carolyn.
  •     Captivating, , honest, searing, this is a beautifully rendered story of a painfully difficult childhood.
  •     So I confess to having not done so (finishing the book.) I am a mere 25 pages from the ending, and I am left feeling not more than a little perplexed.
  •     This is a fabulous book, and one can't help but compare it to Alexandra Fuller's "Don't Let's Go to The Dogs Tonight".The difference is that although Fuller's parents were hard-drinking and unconventional, they loved their children enormously. Carolyn Slaughter had such toxic parents that it is amazing she has become an accomplished, funtioning person. Horribly abused by her father, physically as well as the sexual abuse, she was totally abandoned emotionally by her mother. I almost hated her mother more than the father, as she seemed to have no maternal feelings whatsoever.My only complaint is that she ended the book when she left Africa as a teenager. She tells us in the epilogue that her parents and one of her sisters have all died, but doesen't say anything about their years back in England and whether she continued to have any relationship with her parents and what finally resulted in her having any self-esteem at all. I hope she is busy writing a follow-up. I highly recommend this book as well as Fuller's book.
  •     The saga by Ms. Slaughter is a touching tale of courage, and determination ... a tragedy using the failed British Empire rape of India and Africa as a backdrop to to the personal...
  •     This gorgeously, generously written memoir by the novelist, Carolyn Slaughter, is certain to be on my list of Best Books at year's end.
  •     I picked this book up because it takes place in Africa - one of my interests. But it's so much more.At the age of 6, Carolyn Slaughter's life changed. Her mother had another baby - a girl - and all of a sudden for some reason Carolyn's behavior drastically changes. She has violent nightmares of being suffocated, she becomes a bully, a poor learner and a big problem at school. She even tries to kill her father with a knife.Her only time free of this behavior is the summer she spends with an Afrikiaans family while her mother and father go home for a visit. Her time with them is blissful but can't last.It's only when she's grown with a family of her own that unexpectedly one day she has a frightening revelation which explains everything.A remarkable important book about survival.
  •     If you've read that this is a book about a child raped by her father, you may well want to give it a miss. But you shouldn't, because although the horror of this event (which Slaughter, unlike most, finds corroboration for)frames her narrative it is also a remarkable story of an African childhood.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.
  •     When Freud's female patients complained of forced sex with their fathers at the ages of three, four, five, etc., at first he was incredulous. How could this be? These were not people from the gutter. He treated refined Vienesse burgers, not slum vermin. He knew some were pure fantasy. That many good girls wanted to marry daddy, and as neurotic adults have sex with daddy. But they couldn't ALL be fantasies. However, even trailblazers like Freud have their limits, and he relegated his"Seduction Theory" to fantasy, and dropped it like a hot potato. With him being Jewish in pre Holocaust Vienna, and his enemies castigating him as the Jew doctor who thinks everything has a sexual meaning, can you blame him? In her disturbing book, "Before the Knife", Carolyn Slaughter states on page four,"....the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old." That's the last we hear of this horror untill the final pages of the book. Many of us, as troubled children are convinced we are crazy, born to suffer, and are "total losers", but can't pinpoint a trauma to explain the feeling. Recent reasons such as "chemical imbalance" have helped to explain some mental illness. It seems that Carolyn Slaughter had proof of what turned her into a crazy person, and the one person who could have given her comfort and a safe haven was another crazy person, her mother, who refused to believe such "nonsense". In between the first statement of her rape, and it's final statemet at the end of the book is of a child growing up in that land of incredible human suffering, and incredible beauties of nature, Africa. It's another one of the Creator's jokes. The scenery is lovely, but you'll probably die of famine, plague, tribal war, or the master's whip. Dying of old age is granted to very few. This is not a beach book, and it's pages must have been stained with a lot of tears during it's creation.
 

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