05 March 2015

Book Review: Leaving Before the Rains Come

I'm not sure why I put off reading Alexandra Fuller's newest book, Leaving Before the Rains Come. I had read two of her previous books, one of which I even loved, but the subject matter of this book -- a woman discovering that she and her husband are not a good fit after all -- was not of much interest.  More the fool, me.

It's true, though.  On the surface, there's not much to separate Fuller's story from the hundreds, or even thousands, of memoirs out there that explore marital dissatisfaction and spousal incompatibility, even with the additional level of angst brought on by the recession/depression that hit American in 2008 and from which we're still recovering. Luckily for the reader, though, Fuller is a master of humanity and a helluva writer.

Fuller grew up in Zimbabwe and Zambia, child to parents of hardy English and Scottish stock, and had the great good fortune (some might say misfortune) of being raised in a larger than life family.  Many writers grow up in big, raucous families, but the Fuller family makes every other family I've encountered through literature seem tame by comparison. They've survived civil wars and famines, lost their homes and jobs many times, and even have had to endure the loss of some of their children.  Venturing to the grocery store involves 8+ hour roundtrips on dangerous roads. The surviving children are home schooled, sort of, but that means finding ways to stay out of doors all day, wandering around the bush. Malaria was a fact of life, drinking started early in the day and went on late, and the worst sin anybody could commit at the dinner table was to be boring.

In other words, the Fuller family is of 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, careless, and  undaunted.

So really, it comes as no surprise to the reader that Fuller falls for Charlie almost as soon as she meets him.  An American in Zambia, he can play polo, face down wild elephants, and paddle down  Class V rapids without apparent effort or concern, but he also is easy going and able to take in the ramshackle Zambian setting with aplomb. Mistaking his ease with the country and her family as an anchor to stabilize herself, Alexandra marries him quickly.

That's the set up.  The second half of the book is the mire of that marriage, now that the couple have moved with their young children to the US. Neither spouse is really what the other had imagined, and Fuller does not spare herself the same scrutiny that she applies to husband when examining how and where things went wrong.  Her answers keep circling back to her family, her upbringing, and her leaving the land she loved.

Not especially earth-shattering, or at least not to the reader.  The dissolution of a marriage is a sad thing, but it is not an extraordinary one.  But as I said above, it's Fuller's insights and her knack for piecing together words in beautiful and surprising ways that sets this book apart. Here are a few excerpts:

On being neither African nor European: "I was accidentally British, incidentally European -- a coincidence of so many couplings. But I was deliberately southern African. Not in a good or easy way. There is no getting around the fact that there had been so much awful violence to get me here; my people had engaged in such terrible acts of denial and oppression; I so obviously did not look African; and yet here I still was. That seemed to me to prove a point. Someone had planted me in this soil and I had taken fierce hold. And although I had no illusions -- this land wasn't mine to inherit, none of it belonged to me -- I couldn't help knowing that I belonged to it...The fact that I felt more at home in southern Africa than I did anywhere else on earth, and that I missed the countries of my youth with a physical ache, didn't make me a legitimate citizen of Zimbabwe or Zambia any more than an amputee's cruel sensation of a missing limb renders them whole again."

On watching migratory birds: "Often since then, I've searched the night sky, and although I have caught the brief twist of bats flitting through currents of insects, I have never again seen that nighttime miracle of birds, secretly stitching together south and north with their hunger, with their collective, insistent, mounting realization of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

On madness in the family: "In the way of all daughters, I watched my mother for clues to my future. Her madness terrified me in part because it was too easy for me to see that if I had inherited her small ankles and her oversized laugh, how could I have skipped the place where her ingenuity and passion sat too close to insanity on the spiraling legacy of heritage?"

The Canadian edition
I took the advance reading copy of this book on the plane with me to Asheville last month with the idea that I would leave it behind in the hotel in order to make room for the dozens of books I'd pick up at Winter Institute. Little did I know that the story and the language would get under my skin the way they did, so the book came home with me.  Incidentally, my ARC cover looks a lot like the Canadian edition, which I happen to think is quite superior to the US cover.

Penguin Press published this book in the US in January and I read a copy that was provided to me at my request by my wonderful sales rep.


  1. It's always interesting when a book sounds like something you have read a million times before and then it surprises you in the best way. :)

    1. Absolutely. Good writing and clear insight will rise above the tedium every time.

  2. OK first I have to say that US cover is...wow really not good. Especially when you compare it to the Canadian cover which is so nice. But yeah, it's not just by comparison that I think the US one is bad. Ugh.

    ANYWAY, the book itself sounds good and I really like those excerpts. Which is good because, like you said, the story itself doesn't sound like anything special.

    1. Yeah, they really missed out when changing out the US cover at the last minute. The cover on my ARC is really, really pretty -- nicer, even, than the Canadian one, I think.


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