Alexandra Fuller recalls in her electrifying new memoir that her mother — “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself” — had always wanted a writer in the family, “not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them) but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life, for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe.” When her self-dramatizing mother assessed her life, Ms. Fuller goes on, she “matched it up against the kind of biography she hoped to inspire, something along the lines of ‘West With the Night,’ ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’ or ‘Out of Africa.’ On the whole, she was satisfied.”
In “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” Ms. Fuller gives her impossible mother her due. As readers of this author’s fierce 2001 memoir, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” will recall, Nicola Fuller was a larger-than-life figure in her daughter’s childhood, and in this volume she emerges as a sort of African version of Scarlett O’Hara: a beautiful and spirited young woman, who lived through war and refused to look back; a woman who would lose three of her five children; a woman who grew up in Kenya, attending fancy-dress parties, and who, by the end of the war in Rhodesia in 1979, had become a survivor, capable of riding shotgun in a Land Rover protecting her children from ambush with an Uzi.
Writing in shimmering, musical prose, Ms. Fuller creates portraits of her mother, father and various eccentric relatives that are as indelible and resonant as the family portraits in classic contemporary memoirs like Mary Karr’s “Liars’ Club” and Andre Aciman’s “Out of Egypt.” She describes how her parents met and fell in love and traces their peregrinations across the continent of Africa.She writes about Auntie Glug, her mother’s sister, who would garden “until midnight while teaching herself Spanish,” and her maternal great-grandmother, who lived on the island of Skye in a grand old house that was so cold she “always wore at least five cardigans, the longest one on the bottom, layers and layers of shorter ones on top of that and a thick shawl around her shoulders.”
As her daughter tells it, Nicola Fuller was Macdonald of Clanranald on her mother’s side, a clan that actually had a “war cry” that translates from the Scottish Gaelic into English as “Gainsay who dare.” Her mum, the author writes, “holds dear to her heart the values of her clan: loyalty to blood, passion for land; death before surrender. They’re the sorts of values that lead you to kill and that get you killed, and in every important way, they were precisely the kind of stubborn tribal values that you needed if you were bound and determined to be White, and stay White, first during Kenya’s Mau Mau and later during the Rhodesian war. They were decidedly not the values of the Johnny-come-lately White liberals who survived postindependence in those African countries by declaring with suddenly acquired backbone and conviction that they’d always been on the side of ‘the people.’ ”
As in “Dogs Tonight” (which her family refers to only as “that Awful Book”), Ms. Fuller manages the difficult feat of writing about her mother and father with love and understanding, while at the same time conveying the terrible human costs of the colonialism they supported, reminding us that when white Rhodesians like her parents talked about “Our Freedom,” it “was a funny sort of Freedom that didn’t include being able to say what you wanted about the Rhodesian government or being able to write books that were critical of it,” and that “for the majority of the country, Freedom did not include access to the sidewalks, the best schools and hospitals, decent farming land or the right to vote.”In fact, Ms. Fuller adds, when her mother speaks of her long-lost childhood in Kenya — where she had tea parties with a neighbor’s pet chimpanzee and entered show-jumping competitions with her favorite horse, Violet — it’s as if she were “speaking of a make-believe place forever trapped in the celluloid of another time, as if she were a third-person participant in a movie starring herself, a perfect horse and flawless equatorial light. The violence and the injustices that came with colonialism seem — in my mother’s version of events — to have happened in some other unwatched movie, to some other unwatched people.”
History and unforeseen accidents, however, would tear through Nicola Fuller’s celluloid dream. Her first son, Adrian, would die of meningitis; by the time the baby got to the hospital, it was too late. Her youngest daughter, Olivia — who somehow survived the perils of wartime Rhodesia, including land mines, ambushes and kidnappings — wandered off and drowned in a neighbor’s duck pond. Her second son expired days after his birth because a medical device needed to fix his palate did not arrive from South Africa in time.
The accumulation of losses, Ms. Fuller recounts, would tip her mother over into madness, and she would spend an interlude “strapped down in the mental ward” of a hospital and given “various doses of mad pills, happy pills, panic pills and sleeping pills.”Had her parents not decided to stay on in wartime Rhodesia, had they followed the rest of their family and many friends back to Britain, Ms. Fuller suggests, things might well have been different. Few, however, she adds, “have the wisdom to look forward with unclouded hindsight,” least of all her parents, who clung to the idea of a colonial Africa with perverse tenacity.
Most of us, Ms. Fuller writes, “don’t pay so dearly for our prejudices, our passions, our mistakes. Lots of places, you can harbor the most ridiculous, the most ruining, the most intolerant beliefs and be hurt by nothing more than your own thoughts.”Although Ms. Fuller would move to America with her husband in 1994, her own love for Africa reverberates throughout these pages, making the beauty and hazards of that land searingly real for the reader. She describes the dangers there — the cobra in her father’s office that killed three of their Jack Russell terriers; the python that got their cat — but she also conjures the richness of life on her parents’ new farm in Zambia: “Emerald-spotted doves” calling to one another, frogs “bellowing from the causeway,” the air boiling “with beetles and cicadas, mosquitoes and tsetse flies,” and egrets “white against the gray-pink sky” floating “upriver to roost in the winterthorn trees.”
Both her parents, she writes, want to be buried on that farm, when the time comes. Her father has picked a baobab tree above his fish ponds for the site of his grave. “Just wrap me in a bit of sorry cloth and put me deep enough in the ground that Mum’s bloody dogs don’t dig me up,” he says.Her mother, who had picked another tree nearby, has rather different expectations. “I expect a big, elaborate funeral,” she tells her daughter. “Sing ‘The Hallelujah Chorus,’ wear large expensive hats and fling yourself into the grave after me.”