BEFORE THE KNIFE: Memories of an African Childhood

Carolyn Slaughter, Author . Knopf $23 (240p) ISBN 978-0-375-41397-1

A father's rape of his six-year-old daughter, "forgotten but not forgotten, known but not known," casts its shadow over this memoir of growing up during the 1950s in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana. Her father, a civil servant with a penchant for family and community violence, gives the young Slaughter "the creeps," and mother is "a bag of nerves and a basket case." Nightmares, a tendency toward accidents and an attempted suicide are Slaughter's share in this dysfunctional family, which includes two sisters. Sustenance—or perhaps sanity?—comes from her love affair with the "beautiful beyond words" landscape: the desert and its accompanying river. Novelist and psychotherapist Slaughter (Dreams of the Kalahari) builds her memoir around places (ships, houses, schools) delineated as visually as a photograph and objects rendered tangible, e.g., the Chevy's "voluptuous shapes and wide rumps" and the "meat knife with a beautiful, chiseled end" (which, incidentally, was the instrument of a failed attempt to kill her father). Two lives merge here, one of incredible beauty and one of incredible pain. Although the subject suggests comparison with Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Slaughter's memoir is closer, thematically, to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "You were always willing to go down into the dark without a candle," Slaughter's older sister says when they are reconciled adults, "but I'm not." Slaughter has succeeded in penning a chilling and compelling exorcism. Agent, Betsy Lerner. (May 16)

Reviewed on: 04/15/2002
Release date: 05/01/2002
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