Before the Knife

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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 ...

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Before the Knife

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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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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 InterruptedBefore 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

Slaughter honestly and movingly recounts her childhood in Africa, opening her heart and soul to the reader. Her family is presented to the reader in a forthright manner, displaying all of their flaws and secrets. The author, a middle daughter, grew up in various parts of British colonial Africa, moving often with her family as her father, a member of the Colonial Service, was reassigned. Her mother became clinically depressed after the birth of her third child, and her father was physically and sexually abusive to young Caroline. The sexual abuse is often alluded to; it is only fully revealed at the end of the book as she recounts her recovery of repressed memory in adulthood. Slaughter's descriptive writing style paints a vivid picture of the African landscape, but readers unfamiliar with the continent might be confused by the several moves. A map would have been helpful. Confusion might also occur as Slaughter jumps from one period in her life to another. Because of the graphic picture of a dysfunctional family and the themes presented, this book needs a mature reader. However, the book will also serve as a piece of social commentary and history, showing readers the racial divide, the decline of colonial Africa, and the rise of nationalism in the 1950s and early 1960s. KLIATT Codes: SA;Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, Vintage, 222p., Glantz
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375713460
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/13/2003
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt

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. Afternoon tea was a sumptuous affair, with wafer-thin sandwiches and petit fours with smooth, thick, white icing and a cherry or a sugared violet adorning each perfect tiny white square. Everything was served on solid silver salvers and tea was poured from pots of the same distinction.

At night the ship was lit up and the band played from the cocktail hour onward. The grown-ups would dress up for dinner, linger over drinks served on deck, and eat at tables set with delicate china, good silver, and linens folded into crowns. The dining-room tables had sides that you flipped up quickly to stop the soup landing on your lap when the waves were high. A band would play and there would be dancing afterward on a polished floor. My sister and I would sneak up and spy on the swirling couples, trying to locate our parents. My mother was the woman with the high, almost hysterical laugh. My father was the one not drinking.

During the day we raced up and down the decks, getting splinters in the soles of our feet. We would visit the engine rooms and the captain's deck, swim in the pool set like a sapphire in the dark wood deck, and play organized games the way our parents did. Everyone was kept busily engaged in ship life: there were smoking rooms, billiard and card rooms, and bars and sitting rooms galore. Third class was a different world and one we entered surreptitiously, to slum it a bit before racing back to our posh quarters. Third class, or steerage as it was also called, was there all right, but it wasn't mentioned. Angela and I shared a cabin with two slim berths, one on top of the other. Every moment the portholes filled and emptied of blue and the water in the foldaway basin below the porthole splashed over the sides. The waves rocked us to sleep; the little cabin was a sealed world with the wind and water kept at bay. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if the hard glass of the porthole crashed and the sea came flooding in-how could we stop it? How quickly would we drown? But it would never happen: the boat was as unsinkable as our life was then. Angela slept in the top bunk and I in the one below. Sometimes her face would appear over the edge and I'd look at her upside down and laugh.

We were back in the lap of luxury. India all over again: waited on hand and foot, our every need anticipated and met. Maids, stewards, and pursers replaced the ayahs, butlers, and servants who'd once attended us day and night. The food was quite unlike the dreary English grub we'd left behind. The mail boats had brought with them the bounty of the southern climate, and we were eating mangoes again, and grapefruit that back then were very sour, oranges and tangerines, fat black shiny grapes, avocados and scarlet tomatoes-things unheard-of in England at the beginning of the fifties. Best of all there were no shortages: you could eat as much meat as you liked, and meals came as frequently as they do in a sanatorium.

My mother was happy on that first voyage out. She was the dress-up queen. I can see her long gowns hanging on the back of the cabin door on padded satin hangers. On the dressing table were her creams and cosmetics, neatly lined up, ready for war. I would test the slippery fabric of the skirt with the end of my tongue and look up at the bodice as it hung suspended, fastened by ribbons: black lace and taffeta, strapless and glamorous, tiny-waisted with full, netted underskirts that reached to the floor. Cinderella dancing shoes as transparent as glass, with small diamanté stars hanging in the icicle high heels. Mostly, when I remember her this way, I see her dancing not so much in the ship's ballroom, but on the red, polished stoop of some low-slung, ugly house in the middle of the bush, a million miles from civilization.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Carolyn Slaughter, author of Before the Knife

Q: After publishing several highly acclaimed works of fiction, you stopped writing for over a decade. What were your reasons for this period of silence? What finally inspired you to write Before the Knife?

A: I stopped writing twelve years ago in a deliberate attempt to uncover memories I knew I'd half-remembered and half-forgotten. I had also become convinced that writing itself—working and reworking images and themes in fiction—was actually keeping my real story out of consciousness. So I stopped writing altogether. This tipped me into a disturbing year when I was flooded by childhood images and memories. But the process turned out to be redemptive as well as traumatic. It brought clarity to my life for the first time. While I was not writing, I trained as a psychotherapist and began to work with trauma and abuse survivors, which I still do. And when I felt I had enough distance from the traumatic material, I tried to find the right voice and form to tell my real story. I wanted to create an intimate and close connection with the reader, and I had an image of two people being in the room as I was writing. Before the Knife is the result.
Q: In the second paragraph of the prologue, you wrote that your father raped you when you were six years old. Why did you choose to reveal this at the very beginning of the book?

A: I make it plain in the book that the first rape took place when I was six and that it did not happen just once. I put it right there at the beginning because I did not want to sensationalize the material byleading up to it in a fictional way. I wanted to state what had happened in a plain and exact way to protect the child—myself in this case—from voyeurism. I also wanted to spare the reader any more horror than was necessary. The way the book is written, with the reader knowing the truth in the prologue, also reflects my own experience: I knew it, "forgot" it, and then it returned in full force. I suspect that readers will have a similar experience as they seem to "forget'' and then are hit with the epilogue, which describes how the memories resurfaced.
Q: Due to your father's position with the British Protectorate, you and your sisters grew up in several different places in Africa. When you recall your childhood, is there a particular part of Africa that springs most vividly to mind?

A: The book is an elegy for Africa and for the part that I love best: a small place called Maun at the northern edge of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Q: Even though you lived with your two sisters, you spent a lot of time on your own as a child, exploring the African landscape. At what point did you start to turn some of your solitary observations into writing? Did you ever dream, as a child, about becoming an author?

A: I've wanted to be a writer since I was eight or nine years old, when I first tried to find words for what I was seeing and feeling. I was communicating with myself and with the landscape, and the urgency of needing to write probably came from the fact that what was happening to me was unspeakable.
When I was sent, in my early teen years, to St. Mary's boarding school in Johannesburg, I wondered if I was unteachable, but the religious life and the nuns and their extreme devotions fascinated me, and I learned how to become very self-disciplined. That discipline has been an important force throughout my writing career.
Q: British colonialism was waning while you were a child in Africa in the late fifties. How did you address these changes as you wrote about yourself and your family?

A: While writing this memoir, I hoped to describe my observations of Africa in a way that would make the book more than just a personal document. In Before the Knife, Africa's wrenching out of British imperialism through violence to independence is mirrored by a child's frantic freeing of herself from a particularly virulent form of domestic imperialism.
Q: Have you returned to Africa recently? What did you find?

A: I often go back to Africa and the way I see it is that Africa always returns to what it is: the white man comes and takes what he wants and leaves. But Africa is eternal.
Q: How did this memoir change your perspective on writing? Have certain writers influenced you? Are you ready to begin writing fiction again?

A: My first novel, Relations, was published in l976 and did extremely well. In the next eleven years I wrote eight more (including Dreams of the Kalahari), so I was a bit of a junky. I wouldn't want to write that way again, but I do always write at great speed, by hand, several drafts, and have closets full of manuscript books.
Writing the memoir didn't change my perspective on writing, but America did. Reading American fiction for the first time had an impact (I love Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver and the great poets like Lowell and T.S. Eliot), but the language of the country—the way people speak, the way they turn formal language inside out and make something new and astonishing out of it—this was powerful for me. As an English novelist I wrote more formally but was perceived as a writer who wrote with a combination of violence and vulnerability. That quality is still present, but the language itself is now more fluid, conversational, intimate, and with this language I'm hoping to hit a vein.
I've started writing a novel about India at the time of the l9l9 Afghan War. It's based loosely on my grandmother's life. Four generations of my family lived in India and had connections to the Anglo-Indian Army. I like best to write in the first person so I'm trying to find the right voice and tone to keep the intimacy of Before the Knife.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2003

    Love Me or Love Me Not?

    The life of Carolyn Slaughter is like no other. Imagine having parents who are present throughout your life all the time, but seem to despise you. Going throughout life without the feeling of love or comfort from neither mother nor father is extremely unbearable. Her father who began raping her at the tender age of 6, had issues of wanting to be in control at all times, whereas her mother, going through a state of depression, simply did not notice her. After reading this, you will appreciate the positive-sum-gain relationship you had with your parents, where each person gives and receives love, whereas she and her parents had a zero-sum-gain relationship because she was the only one giving the love and never receiving the love. The ending was great also, but it leaves the reader wanting to know more about her life after her teenage years.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2004


    Where is the rest of the story?? What happened to the parents and sister? How did they die? What happened to Virginia? This seemed like a very UNFINISHED story. What had the possibility of being interesting turned into a disappointment. Nothing pulled together in the end.

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