21 September 2011

Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

For whatever reason, I never read Alexandra Fuller's first memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (perhaps because I thought the title was inexplicable, perhaps because I didn't know it was set in Africa), but as soon as I heard about this one, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, I knew I wanted to read it.  Not only does it have one of the most evocative titles ever, it is also largely set in Africa. And since African lit is second only to Caribbean lit in terms of my regional reading preferences, I devoured this book the same day that my kindly sales rep, Karl, gave it to me.

So apparently in her first memoir, Fuller reveals some things about her mother that came across as less than flattering and perhaps even of the call-social-services-pronto variety.  In Cocktail Hour, her mother is hesitant to talk about her own childhood because she doesn't want to end up in another Awful Book, but apparently she relents enough for Fuller to fashion this 200+ page second memoir of her mother's life.

Nicola Fuller, nee Huntington, is clearly a force of nature.  Hailing from Scotland but living most of her life in central and east Africa, she is of seriously hardy stock.  The kind that is so admirable and interesting to read about but perhaps less comfortable to actually live with.  Unconventional, larger-than-life, fearless, fierce, daunting and undaunted are among her many epithets.

She is also unapologetically pro-Colonial and the reader must entertain the possibility of her being virulently racist, too. Problematic, that.  And yet she loves Africa, with every last fibre of her being, and it's hard to imagine loving a place so much that you don't also love its people.  So suffice it to say that Alexandra is a product of both her generation and her social class, and that she is one of the most complicated and fascinating and charismatic characters I've ever encountered.  If she had lived in ancient Greece, her life would be sung by the likes of Sophocles and Aristophanes--in other words, equal parts tragedy and comedy.

I never knew much about Rhodesia, other than it became Zimbabwe and that the gorgeous Ridgeback dog breed hails from there, until I read this book. What I know now isn't particularly pleasant, either.  If this book is to be read at face value, Rhodesia was basically an entire country for for all of sub-Saharan Africa's white-flight.  Great.  I also learned more about the Boer War, which somehow has always remained hazy in my mind, no matter how many novels I read that reference it (same thing with the Crimean War, come to think of it; maybe it's my American upbringing rearing its ugly head).

But enough with my ramblings.  Here are some passages that I think attest to the kind of person Nicola Fuller was, and the life she led.  Alexandra Fuller clearly had a great subject to work with here, but it was her writing as much as the store that kept me turning the pages breathlessly.  The Narrative "I" in many of the below passages is Alexandra, Nicola's daughter:

p. 73 "I reassured Mr. Faraji that Mum is an extreme omnivore.  She has eaten snails peeled off the farm's driveway and wild frogs' legs from the bush surrounding the Tree of Forgetfulness. Once she even ate a prawn cocktail in hyperlandlocked, socialist-era Zambia, and if that didn't kill her, I argued, a little dysentery-laced street food on Mombasa wasn't going to do the trick.

p. 118. "People often ask why my parents haven't left Africa.  Simply put, they have been possessed by this land.  Land is Mum's love affair and it is Dad's religion."

p. 39 '' 'I used to run away from our bungalow...and play in her garden with my first best friend, Stephen Foster.' Mum smiles at the memory. 'Stephen and I used to take turns pushing each other on his tricycle. We wore matching romper suits. We had tea parties. We went everywhere together, hand in hand.'
     'Stephen was one of Zoe's sons' I guess.
     Mum frowns, 'No, no, no,' she says. 'Stephen wasn't her son. Stephen was a chimpanzee.'
     There is a small, appalled pause while I try--and fail--to imagine sending one of my toddlers off to play with a chimpanzee... 'Weren't your parents worried he would bite you?' I ask.
    Mum gives me a look as if I have just called Winnie-the-Pooh a pedophile, 'Stephen? Bite me? Not at all, we were best friends.' " (NB: The jacket photo for this book is a picture of Nicola and Stephen Foster, colorized of course.)

p. 142, after the death of one of her children, "The doctors tranquilized Mum until her grief receded to a place so deep that she was the only person who could hear it. In this way, everything about Adrian's death became a devastatingly slow injury, shards of hurt surfacing sometimes unexpectedly decades later the way pieces of shrapnel emerge from soldiers' wounds years after they have been hit."

p. 170, during the civil war in Rhodesia, "On the way home, Vanessa and I fought over who would have Olivia on her lap.... Until Mum (sitting in the front with her Uzi pointed out the window) swiveled around and threatened to swat both of us unless we settled down, shut up and looked after the baby. After that we got serious and put Olivia on the seat between us, below the level of a window so that if we were ambushed, a bullet would have to go through the Land Rover door and one of us before it could ever reach our baby. There was an unspoken rule. If we were all going to die, it would be in this order: Dad, Mum, Vanessa, me, and then unthinkingly last but only over all of our dead bodies, Olivia."


  1. Despite my complete lack of interest in Africa, you have again reviewed something I've now added to my goodreads list. Good job being awesome.

  2. I always have to ask my husband, who teaches the British Empire class, "Now what was the Crimean War about again?" And then five mintutes later, I forget again.

  3. Excellent review. Please Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is one of my all-time favorite books. I'll read this one too. Can't wait!


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