Written Roots

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Alexandra Fuller’s third memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, turns the spotlight on her mother—”a broken, splendid, fierce mother.”

Few authors can claim a life story as absorbing as Alexandra Fuller’s, and most would be hard-pressed to justify more than one memoir. Fuller has just published her third. Born in the UK and raised across various politically dubious and economically hobbled African countries, Fuller has traveled the bush, lived through a protracted civil war, lost siblings, and watched a parent’s perilous slip into manic depression. No wonder that readers across the globe are captivated by her wry voice and the tales she has to tell. In her latest book, however, Fuller is hardly more than the profile of a face looking up at a lit stage. On that stage is her mother, Nicola Fuller—the protagonist of Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.

Through a combination of journalistic research, personal recollections, and lively dialogue, Cocktail Hour recounts the dramatic arc of a white-African woman’s life. Drawing her mother’s changing face across colonialism, bush war, and farm life after African independence, Fuller captures the toll that politics can levy on a family. As if to highlight the creases left by poverty and conflict, scenes from the past and present intersperse, with recollected mother-daughter conversations giving way to Fuller’s retelling of key events from Nicola’s life. In this way, the book performs a unique task, documenting the process through which a protagonist’s life is recreated in writing.

Nicola Fuller’s story is one of obstinacy and ostracism. Her lineage runs back to the Scottish island of Skye, full of faerie legends and blood feuds. Her mother grows up riding horses across a rainy wilderness and abruptly leaves Skye for Africa at twenty. Nicola’s father is in Kenya for easy profit. Tim Fuller, her future husband, arrives after a string of unsuccessful farm jobs in Canada and the Caribbean. From the beginning, one senses that these are unabashedly courageous people, unafraid of danger and prone to swift decision-making. “Everyone thought they could go out there and grow coffee,” Nicola says, “but it wasn’t as easy as it sounded, and my grandfather wasn’t the least bit interested in coffee.” African land turns out to be temperamental and inconsiderate, full of tsetse flies and bush fires apt to swallow a family pet. Yet Nicola’s people show a doggedness to stay, made all the more compelling by their initial arrival on whim and accident.

Tim and Nicola marry just as Britain’s grip on Kenya begins to crumble, but the young couple plant African roots. When the death of a son spurs temporary departure, Nicola is shown watching the coast of the United Kingdom: “She willed herself to feel British. Nothing stirred.” With touching detail, Fuller crafts the struggle for identity lost in emigration—the limbo state when one home has been lost and another not yet found. The Fullers are always visitors, packed into a car and moving across Africa’s fluid borders. They traverse Kenya, Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), Malawi, and finally Zambia. Fuller catalogs the items from her mother’s dowry which survive each move, and the ever-shrinking lists provide a humorous but moving counterweight to the transience she wrote into her first book: “If we had been vanished away, sucked up into the atmosphere” while driving across Rhodesia in a station wagon, “there would have been no trace of our little family ever having been on the planet.”

The Fullers’ Africa is one of supreme remoteness. Loneliness is extreme when Tim takes a job selling equipment to far-flung farms: “If you saw another car, you got so excited you stopped and introduced yourself.” Yet the family also belongs to a fringe minority—white and purposefully distant from indigenous peoples. They drink tea grown elsewhere and speak a transplanted language. They move to Rhodesia to live somewhere white-run and actively participate in armed struggle against the black majority. Parallel to this violence and injustice are the book’s most heart-wrenching images: A donkey, Nicola’s childhood friend, tied to a tree and braying as it is engulfed by wildfire. Tim Fuller, alone, interring the ashes of his baby son. “You learn not to mourn every little thing out here,” Nicola says. “Or you’d never, ever stop grieving.”

Though war isn’t tackled head-on in this memoir as it was in Fuller’s second, Scribbling the Cat, Fuller brings an adult’s perspective to her parents’ role in one of the cruelest conflicts of Africa’s recent history. Family conversations pertaining to the war are shown as tentative and tight-lipped. She recalls the road patrols and guerrilla attacks of her childhood, noting the way in which the weight of violence is lessened when it becomes endemic. “War became our climate, something you didn’t feel you could do much about and that you might remark on casually.” It is noteworthy that when the war ends and Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe, her parents’ greatest regret is not the act of losing itself nor the transfer of power into black leaders’ hands. Rather, it is the sense of being brushed off, demoted from soldier to has-been. “One morning we woke up and it had all been decided,” Nicola says. At its core, this is the ubiquitous pain of a citizen manipulated and ultimately overruled by politicians.

For her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller received a plethora of accolades—including a spot on the bestseller list and mention as a New York Times notable book for 2002. But there were also accusations: the book skimmed the surface of the Rhodesian Bush War, and Fuller appeared not to flinch at parents who were white supremacists. Nicola always struck an arresting figure—advocating white rule in Africa while sitting in an alcohol-induced yoga pose, or charging her horse at black settlers coming to take over her Rhodesian farm. But she was a person watched from the outside, and no justification besides blunt fact was given for her antics. Dogs was a childhood memoir, and the same earnestness which gave appeal to its precocious narrator prevented Fuller from looking deeper into Africa’s garbled politics or her parents’ wounded psyches. In Cocktail Hour, Fuller brings an adult’s sympathetic eye to examine her family, and a journalist’s sharp analysis to the plight of a continent struggling with corruption and poverty to this day.

As such, Cocktail Hour is not quite a sequel or a prequel to Dogs, but rather a separate record of the author’s private discovery and reconciliation. In one scene, looking back at the Rhodesia years, Fuller passes long-awaited judgment: “In retrospect, of course… we should have seen that a story begun with such one-sided, unconscious joviality would end in defeat and heartbreak.” But in another moment, as mother and daughter reminisce, Fuller offers broad—and sudden—acceptance of Nicola: before war and the loss of children, Nicola seems like “someone else’s mother. She is not the broken, splendid, fierce mother I have.” Cocktail Hour skillfully wraps family tragedy and national circumstance into a single knot and lets readers watch as Fuller works to unravel it.

Ana Grouverman is a writer living and working in New York City. She is a graduate of Georgetown University, and you can see her writing here. More from this author →