Discoveries: Alexandra Fuller
By Susan Salter ReynoldsSeptember 3, 2011
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
IN ALEXANDRA FULLER'S CLASSIC MEMOIR Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the author used all her formidable humor, love, persistence, and maybe a little anger to paint a picture of what is surely one of the strangest childhoods in literature. Simply reading about it is a kind of antidote to helicopter parenting. In the Rhodesian bush where Fuller (nicknamed Bobo by her mother) was raised, the focus was on self-sufficiency and character building. Animals and ghosts were just as important, if not more so, than children. To this day, Fuller’s mother refers to Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight as “that Awful Book,” written, she says with some scorn, by “my American daughter.” Her disdain is in part because it described the nearly constant drinking required to keep any semblance of a stiff upper lip through the loss of two children, a civil war, and various lesser discomforts. Every so often, Mum would “throw a wobbly,” remembers Alexandra, who has lived in Wyoming for the past several decades.
In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller pushes her mother a little harder, trying to get at the source of all that hilarious instability. She discovers strange memories from her mother’s childhood in Scotland and Africa.
Mum cries when bagpipes play; she once attempted to slip a suitcase full of haggis through Zambian customs (to be fair, she was experiencing a manic episode at the time) and her eyes actually change color from green to yellow when she is excited or about to go certifiably mad.
Fuller’s is the flip side of the African dream — the Africa that Hemingway, Beryl Markham and Elspeth Huxley failed to capture in their romantic scenes of colonial and postcolonial life in Kenya and Tanzania. Her parents, unlike the “Happy Valley Set” who drank their way through decades in Kenya, actually worked and loved the land. Fuller’s parents farmed in Rhodesia before moving to a banana and fish farm on the Middle Zambezi River in northern Zimbabwe, where they live and work today.
Land is Mum’s love affair and it is Dad’s religion. When he walks from the camp under the Tree of Forgetfulness to the river and back again, he is pacing a lifelong, sacred commitment to all soil learned at childhood.
Fuller is the queen of understatement. It’s her version of the stiff upper lip.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.
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