Simon & Schuster, £14.99 238pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, By Alexandra Fuller
Friday 21 October 2011
In 2002 Alexandra Fuller published a childhood memoir that her family now dismiss as "that Awful Book". Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight blew the lid off the silence surrounding white racism in (then) Rhodesia. It also alienated her parents and enthralled readers with stories of snakes and dogs and watching out for "terrorists" when you went to the loo at night. We last saw her parents in her self-searching travelogue, Scribbling the Cat, sexing the fish at their farm in Zambia. Her new book returns her to the family fold – half an apology, half an ode of admiration for her extraordinary mother.
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is a gin-riddled romp through the life and times of Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she likes to refer to herself. Born in Skye but raised in Kenya, Fuller's mother has always loved books and "wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them)". Unapologetically beautiful and (sometimes unwisely) daring, hers is indeed a "life Worthy of Fabulous Literature". In the opening chapter she learns to fly, singing Sinatra as she sets off in the footsteps of her literary role-models, Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham, after a dashing Sri Lankan pilot.
There follows a series of astonishing friendships – mostly with animals but some with people. From Stephen Foster the chimpanzee to Violet, a "horse of such shining perfection" that she won every race she entered. Most touching is the relationship between Nicola and her husband, Tim. Fuller lovingly details the early days of their marriage and the insane confidence that comes with being the most exciting couple around.
Nearly 50 years later, they have survived the death of three children, several wars, and endless moves from farm to farm, trailing dogs, cats, a bronze statue of Wellington and some orange Le Creuset pots. Incremental loss nearly kills her mother and is only dissipated by a lot of pills and a spell in a Zimbabwean mental hospital. But she retains her indomitable courage and her devoted, if rather deaf, husband.
Some of the tales here are familiar from Fuller's memoirs and short stories. But Cocktail Hour revisits family events – in particular the drowning of her sister Olivia – from her mother's perspective. Sliding between past and present, Fuller writes her research into the story as she listens to her parents reminiscing over yet another drink. Even at her most relaxed, Fuller's own politics filter through. There are numerous historical asides; she distances herself from such clichés as "the perfect equatorial light" and eschews her mother's pronunciation of "Keen-ya" for a shorter "postcolonial e". This is another dazzling, uncomfortable and incorrigibly funny account of the Fuller family's love affair with a continent, a fatally flawed past and the search for some kind of peace under the tree of forgetfulness on what we hope is their final farm.
Zoe Norridge teaches English at York University
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