Alexandra Fuller’s latest book, The Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Penguin Press HC 2011) continues to roam around in my imagination more than a month after I finished reading it. She is a memoirist who transports the reader to a time and place you could never otherwise know and experience it with compassion and good humor.
Even her title invites the reader to the place in the African village where people meet, talk, discuss, negotiate, laugh, drink, sing, forgive and forget. One central tree where the shade provides a gathering place. The Tree of Forgetfulness is a symbolic spot where sitters anticipate the amnesia that lets them forget the past: slavery, war, violence. The central figure in this story, Nicola Fuller, is much like this tree herself. And she holds court there during the cocktail hour.
If I told you this book was about a mother who lost two children, drove around with an Uzi across her lap with an infant and toddler strapped in, suffered from alcoholism and depression, and lived the life of a white Rhodesian, I’m guessing you wouldn’t really be interested. Not a character most of us are interested in getting to know better.
But if you read Fuller’s first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (2003 Random House Trade Paperbacks), then you already know the larger than life stories of Alexandra’s mother, Nicola, and her father and itinerant farmer, Tim, Fuller are page turners. Alexandra Fuller returns to the subject of her childhood in Kenya and writes as the memoirist of parents who intend to spend their final days in the Zambezi Valley.
Fuller recounts the African childhood of her mother, Nicola, and her father’s British upbringing during the early part of the 20th century. The relations between whites and Africans, between rich and poor, majority and minority are shown, not told. Historical, cultural and political background information are woven into the story like a blind hem on a full skirt. Fuller is a gifted journalist and applies this skill by permitting her readers to make their own interpretations and draw their own conclusions.
Capturing the voice and irrepressible spirit of Nicola Fuller, Alexandra reveals her mother’s love of animals, especially horses, her grit in struggling to scrape out a living, her negotiations to make a place in the world, and her reckless sense of adventure. But also the suffering of a woman who lost a child to an illness that could not be treated in such a remote location. A woman whose daughter drowned when she left her at home. A woman whose husband would be gone four days at a time working farm land miles away. A woman who drank. A force to be reckoned with, and a lady.
If you haven’t read her first book, this one stands on its own. And you’ll enjoy the first one, then, even more. You might be interested to know that Fuller’s agent suggested she write another book about her mother and father. If you have read both, which do you think is better?
Between the two books, Alexandra Fuller wrote The Legend of Colton Bryant (Penguin 2009). The true story of a boy in Wyoming who loves to ride mustangs and fancies the rodeo, returns home to take a job on an oil-rig and is killed on the job. Where the great high plains meet the Rocky Mountains, hydro-fracking changes the landscape and its people. Fuller lives in Wyoming and captures the characters and sense of place to draw a landscape portrait of contemporary life.
Rare is the writer whose voice is so compelling that it doesn’t matter what they write, you’ll read it. For me, Alexandra Fuller is one of those rare writers.