Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, By Alexandra Fuller

'Bullets, lipstick and sunglasses. Off we go'
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The Independent Culture

Alexandra Fuller burst on to the literary memoir scene with 2001's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, a clear-eyed depiction of growing up in war-torn Rhodesia, just before it became Zimbabwe.

She went on to produce two books of terrific reportage: Scribbling the Cat, a profile of a Rhodesian war veteran, and The Legend of Colton H Bryant, about a Wyoming oil rig worker. With this latest tome, she's firmly back in memoir territory, this time mining her family's roots in Scotland and England, the better to capture portraits of her parents and the peripatetic, turbulent lives they've led.

While there are stories here that shed light on Fuller's father, Tim, the main focus is on her mum, Nicola, who boasts a paternal lineage of bishops and vicars (until her grandfather decided he'd "make a go of it in Kenya"); plenty of family eccentrics and hardy types hailing from the Isle of Skye; and a soft spot for Gavin Maxwell's Ring of Bright Water.

Fuller rummages around in relatives' closets and memories, turning up photos, documents and anecdotes that detail decadent lives lived in deepest Scotland: Nicola has a legacy complete with clan crest badge, motto and war cry. "It took me a while to recover from the discovery that Mum's family actually had a war cry," Fuller writes, "but then I thought about Mum and I realized that if you didn't have a war cry to go with that attitude, you'd have to invent one."

Despite a life lived primarily in Africa, Nicola holds tight to her Highland roots, regaling Fuller with tales of clan battles and of conflicts closer to home, including the bad-tempered uncle who divorced his wife because he didn't like the way she ate apples and then hid himself away in one of the house's towers, a sulky Bluebeard in reverse. Nicola's mum had escaped to Kenya as an au pair, married, and Nicola grew up "doggedly Macdonald of Clanranald but also a product of East Africa, of that particular time and place when there were really no limits on how well or badly, sanely or madly a white person had to behave".

As entertaining as many of the scenes are – "Bullets, lipstick, sunglasses. Off we go," says Nicola, packing an Uzi for the journey to a fancy dress party – they sit in decidedly mixed company next to the racism inherent in the colonial lifestyle. But while Nicola and Tim were privileged, they didn't take their opportunities lightly, and developed a fierce, unyielding attachment to their African home as well as to each other, an attachment which finds them indelibly together after nearly 50 years of marriage and multiple family tragedies, running their own fish and banana farm in post-colonial Zambia.

Though Fuller's book starts in comic mood, as Nicola commands centre stage with a diverting flying lesson, it ends on a different note altogether, with a stronger element of equality – familial, social, political – in every sense of the word.

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