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Out of the darkness

Author Carolyn Slaughter, Africa, come of age in memoir ‘Before the Knife’

By Leigh E. Rich

Before the Knife: Memoirs of an African Childhood
By Carolyn Slaughter
Alfred a Knopf Inc.
January 2002

Though born in India to English parents and admittedly influenced by American fiction, there could be no other homeland for novelist Carolyn Slaughter than Africa.

True, Slaughter is yet another Africanophile in a long list of Europeans, adding her name to those of Joseph Conrad, Jane Goodall, Louis Leakey, Isak Dinesen and Kuki Gallmann. But Slaughter might have the most intimate connection to the Dark Continent—as Africa was known in the 19th and early 20th centuries during the height of colonial rule—a kinship she gracefully depicts in her memoir Before the Knife.

Having moved to Swaziland with her parents and sister in the early 1950s, “the lingering last years of British colonial rule,” Slaughter, almost 4, would soon confront the end of her childhood naiveté and be forced into a cruel, unguided independence similar to what was emerging throughout Africa at the time.

At the age of 6, Slaughter unabashedly tells her readers in the prologue, “came the night that my father first raped me.”

This jarring admission, however potentially cliché in today’s crammed confessional, serves two of Slaughter’s purposes: With its immediate mention, she assures her audience that Before the Knife is not primarily about her assaults, and she’s able to re-create her family’s quick sweeping-under-the-rug of this brutish reality in the minds of those who dare continue beyond Page 4.

The rewards of doing so are great, and Before the Knife offers readers an inside perspective on both how victims can at times forget to remember their beleaguered existence and how such a tortured child could find solace and beauty in an equally troubled continent.

Some of Slaughter’s warmest childhood memories coincided with the transfer of her father, employed by the Colonial Service, from Swaziland to Maun, at the northern edge of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. This outpost in the Kalahari Desert—physical and social isolation for her mother—became a vivid metaphor come to life for Slaughter. “So there we were, with no home to call our own, and nowhere to return to, in the middle of the bush, our fate entirely in the hands of a man who’d hooked his domestic imperialism onto an empire founded on robbery and war, at a time when the natives were beginning to get restless.”

For Slaughter, Africa—her early years in Maun in particular—was all that England and her father were not. “These were the days when no roads crossed the vast unbroken savannas, when you followed the spoor on the sand and took your chances. When the Okavango was in flood and the water came gently down, the herds came with it, sniffing water into the wind, following the river’s mysterious course to graze among the sedges, and to snort and cavort in the water.”

Such tranquility, for Africa and Slaughter, couldn’t last, however, and Before the Knife poetically laments the desertification of both the Kalahari and Slaughter’s emotional innocence and her infrequent glimpses of happiness. Forced to leave Maun when her father was transferred again, Slaughter writes, “In my heart I knew that the desert wouldn’t miss me at all, and that when the wind blew, my footprint would vanish, leaving no memory of where I’d walked when my mind was adrift with loneliness.”

By intertwining such parallel plights, Before the Knife proves a worthwhile coming-of-age story. Slaughter succeeds in writing about both colonial Africa and her difficult childhood without focusing on the abuse, although the rapes remain an inexorable specter throughout the book.

Even the memoir’s fitting title, taken from a poem by the melancholy Sylvia Plath, conveys the unsettling leitmotif that runs through Slaughter’s memories of Africa: “What I want back is what I was / Before the bed, before the knife.”

Rich, L. E. (2002, June 7). Out of the darkness. [Review of the book Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood by Carolyn Slaughter.] Rocky Mountain News.

First Place – Book Reviews – Colorado Press Women – April 2003

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