Slaughter, Carolyn 1946–

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Slaughter, Carolyn 1946–


Born January 7, 1946, in New Delhi, India; daughter of Gerald Columbia (a colonial civil servant) and Marian Ryan; married Denis Pack-Beresford (a public relations director; divorced); married Daniel Cromer (a company director; divorced); married Kemp Battle; children: Alice Eliza, Daniel Thomas. Education: Educated in Africa and England.


Home—Lawrenceville, NJ. Agent—Richard Scott Simon, 32 College Cross, London N1, England.


Novelist. Advertising copywriter in London, England, for advertising agencies, including Garland Compton, Ltd., 1966-68, Norman Craig & Kummel, 1969-71, Collett, Dickenson & Pearce, 1971-72, Nadler, Larimer & Cromer, 1972-74. Freelance writer, 1974-85.


Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, Faber & Faber, 1977, for The Story of the Weasel.



The Story of the Weasel (Literary Guild selection), Hart-Davis, 1976, published as Relations, Mason-Charter, 1978.

Columba, Hart-Davis, 1977.

Magdalene, Hart-Davis, 1978.

Dreams of the Kalahari, Granada (London, England), 1981.

Heart of the River, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1983.

The Banquet, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1984.

A Perfect Woman, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1985.

The Innocents, Scribner (New York, NY), 1986.

The Widow, Heinemann (London, England), 1989.

Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, Doubleday (London, England), 2002, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

A Black Englishman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2004.


Carolyn Slaughter's fiction depicts complex relationships among family members, lovers, and friends while exploring the effects of the past upon the present. Through detailed evocations of place and character, Slaughter dramatizes the lasting significance of childhood incidents and associations as well as the power of natural forces to influence emotion and behavior. Born in India to British parents and later educated in Botswana, Slaughter draws on her experiences abroad for the settings and subject matter for some of her work. Slaughter's writing is noted for its realism, as Edmund Cusick wrote in Contemporary Novelists: "While her themes are those of paperback romances—love, relationships, and the family—her quest for psychological reality leaves the art of idealization and euphemism far behind…. Slaughter portrays the dark knots of bitterness and vulnerability, pain and need, which lie within the individual psyche." Cusick added: "While not making explicit use of psychoanalysis, there is an impulse within Slaughter's work which parallels that of the analyst: the search for inner knowledge; for discovery of, and confrontation with, the secrets hidden within the self. Her plots are driven not only by the momentum of unfolding action, but by that of unfolding knowledge."

Slaughter's first novel, The Story of the Weasel, examines the intricacies of sexuality in British society during the Victorian period. Narrated through a private journal that the female protagonist begins as a means of escaping her unhappy marriage, the book focuses on the woman's incestuous childhood relationship with her brother. Although some reviewers regarded the book as awkward and archaic, others commended Slaughter's reserved treatment of a sensitive topic. In the Times Literary Supplement Sylvia Clayton noted that "the constraint of writing in period costume often makes the novel seem chilly and contrived."

Two of Slaughter's later books, Dreams of the Kalahari and The Innocents, are set in Africa. Dreams of the Kalahari is a semi-autobiographical work that chronicles the life of a British official's neglected daughter. The story begins with her childhood in Botswana, where she develops a strong identification with the country's na- tive people, and continues into her unhappy years in England and her eventual return to the Kalahari Desert. Critics lauded Slaughter's acute evocation of childhood emotions as well as her unsentimental depiction of colonial life in decline.

Published in 1986, The Innocents focuses on Zelda de Valera, a white South African woman in conflict with her family, and Hannah, the black woman who has become her closest friend. Indeed, Apartheid threatens to destroy Zelda's secure life on a remote farm. Critics commended Slaughter's vivid description of the African landscape and her effective dramatization of the effects of racism. In the New York Times Book Review, Cheri Fein wrote: "As long as the atrocities taking place in South Africa continue, the devastation of racial separation there cannot be overdone by writers. The challenge is to make social and political issues into art. Carolyn Slaughter's latest novel manages the transformation with grace and passion."

Slaughter continues her personal look at the decolonization of the British Empire in her memoir Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood. Slaughter was born in India before the country received its independence from Britain, and her father—a minor colonial official—removed the family to Africa, where British influence continued for a few more years. Both parents suffered from mental illness, however, and in her father's case the disease led him to abuse his daughter sexually. "Slaughter spends the rest of her childhood in self-destructive fury at the world and in desperate attempts to win the attentions of her useless (there is no other word to describe her) mother," declared Shireen Hassim in the Women's Review of Books. "She begins to find her voice in the most unlikely of settings, a girls' boarding school in Johannesburg to which, as a ‘most difficult child,’ her parents send her when they [cannot] or will no longer deal with the consequences of their abuse and neglect." Her escape from the cruelty of family life also comes through an appreciation of the African countryside. "Slaughter's style is lyrical and haunting," stated Carol DeAngelo in a School Library Journal review of the book. "In beautifully painted prose, she conveys her great love for the magnificence of Africa."

A Black Englishman, Slaughter's tenth novel, also partly arises from her family history; the female protagonist, Isabel Herbert, is based on her maternal grandmother. Fleeing the chaos of World War I, Isabel marries a career military officer who is being posted to India, and she becomes enchanted with the country. She also falls for Sam Singh, a native Indian doctor educated at Oxford University. Although their affair is conducted with decorum, both end up suffering for their attachment. "Isabel," stated a Publishers Weekly contributor, "is attacked by her cuckolded husband and nearly sent to an asylum, and Sam is unfairly arrested and brutalized." "Slaughter's latest novel," wrote Carol Haggas in Booklist, "sumptuously limns the depth and breadth of the subcontinent in a sweeping panorama."

Slaughter wrote: "My greatest area of interest is childhood, specifically the years between birth and pre-puberty. Nothing happens after that, cycles only repeat.

"In my novels I always seem to be drawn to situations of great stress—violence, insanity. I keep returning to these themes because they are, for me, haunting, and because I believe that by exploring them fully in fiction one can reduce their terror. The danger of this is that the work can easily become sombre, and I have to work harder all the time to change the mood and pace of my novels as they tend to be claustrophobic, somewhat linear. I am happiest writing in the present tense, in the first person, and will try to find a way of making that form work effectively in the future. I don't think books should be nice cozy things to curl up with—some should be more like a kick in the guts."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 56, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.

Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Slaughter, Carolyn, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.


Booklist, May 1, 2002, Kristine Huntley, review of Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, p. 1499; October 1, 2004, Carol Haggas, review of A Black Englishman, p. 312.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2002, review of Before the Knife, p. 477; September 1, 2004, review of A Black Englishman, p. 834.

Kliatt, September, 2003, Shelley A. Glantz, review of Before the Knife, p. 36.

Library Journal, June 1, 2002, Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, review of Before the Knife, p. 180; October 15, 2004, Sofia A. Tangalos, review of A Black Englishman, p. 56.

London Review of Books, June 2, 1983, review of The Banquet, p. 20; August 7, 1986, review of The Innocents, p. 24.

New Statesman, February 18, 2002, Richard Dowden, review of Before the Knife, p. 50.

New York Times Book Review, July 15, 1984, Jill Grossman, review of The Banquet, p. 18; April 21, 1985, Lucie Prinz, review of A Perfect Woman, p. 24; July 13, 1986, Cheri Fein, review of The Innocents, p. 18; August 9, 1987, Sheila Solomon Klass, review of Dreams of the Kalahari, p. 20; April 17, 1988, reviews of The Banquet and A Perfect Woman, p. 40.

Observer, May 3, 1981, review of Dreams of the Kalahari, p. 32; October 31, 1982, review of Heart of the River, p. 30; May 29, 1983, review of The Banquet, p. 30; June 1, 1986, review of The Innocents, p. 22; July 26, 1987, review of The Innocents, p. 22; May 28, 1989, review of The Widow, p. 46.

Publishers Weekly, April 15, 2002, review of Before the Knife, p. 51; September 27, 2004, review of A Black Englishman, p. 35.

School Library Journal, November, 2002, Carol DeAngelo, review of Before the Knife, p. 198.

Times Literary Supplement, April 9, 1976, Sylvia Clayton, review of The Story of the Weasel, p. 31; May 29, 1981, review of Dreams of the Kalahari, p. 596; December 17, 1982, review of Heart of the River, p. 1398; July 13, 1984, review of A Perfect Woman, p. 790; August 1, 1986, review of The Innocents, p. 844; April 19, 2002, Deborah L. Manzolillo, "The Way We Were," review of Before the Knife, p. 29; August 27, 2004, Chitralekha Basu, review of A Black Englishman, p. 21.

Women's Review of Books, November, 2002, Shireen Hassim, "The White Child's Burden," review of Before the Knife, p. 10.


Curled Up with a Good Book, (April 10, 2007), Shannon Bigham, review of A Black Englishman.