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BOOK REVIEW

Alexandra Fuller’s Mum front and center in second memoir

By Judy Bolton-Fasman
August 23, 2011

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It may seem odd to have the word “forgetfulness’’ in the title of a memoir. But in this case, it is not the memories of life that are shed but the strife. In Central Zambia, where Alexandra Fuller’s parents retire to run a fish and banana farm, The Tree of Forgetfulness is a spot where villagers have traditionally resolved disputes and the Fullers finally find the peace that eluded them for much of their lives in Africa. The Fullers’ farm manager explains that a Tree of Forgetfulness miraculously grows from a single stick into an exceptionally sturdy tree - a tree that becomes home to ghostly ancestors who offer succor when someone is ill or troubled.

It’s appropriate that Fuller’s mother enjoys her tea under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she and others recount days long past and ways of life now lost. Nicola, who identifies as “one million percent Highland Scottish,’’ has lived most of her life in Africa, where her ethnicity predisposes her to a fondness for animals and a belief in ghosts. In her new memoir, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,’’ Fuller brilliantly captures her mother from the beginning:

“Nicola Fuller of Central Africa 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.’’

“Cocktail Hour’’ is a sequel to Fuller’s best-selling “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,’’ her alternately affectionate and searing chronicle of her childhood amid the 1970s Rhodesian civil war, an account that Nicola refers to as “The Awful Book.’’ This new work ostensibly traces the lives of Fuller’s parents Nicola and Tim from their childhoods in Scotland and England, respectively, through the personal tragedies and the political violence that marked the lives of their family and friends in mid-20th-century Africa.

But whatever its design, the center of this book is Nicola. In fact, a reader senses that Nicola felt not so much betrayed by Fuller’s first memoir as miffed that occasionally she had to share the spotlight with her daughter.

In this latest work Fuller is at her most impressive as she unknots the complicated contradictions that frequently kink up her story. It’s an artistic and emotional feat to write about a narcissistic mother with humor, compassion, and ultimately love. “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight’’ was unfurled at a quick pace, while “Cocktail Hour’’ is a slower narrative, allowing for the kind of rumination that enables Fuller to develop Nicola chapter by chapter.

Fuller proves an affable narrator, willing - up to a point - to deliver the “glamorous obituary’’ that her mother envisions for herself. The promise of immortality through words enabled Nicola to survive a devastating horseback riding accident, civil warfare erupting for decades outside her front door, and the early deaths of three of her five children. Add to this Nicola’s genetic predilection to “funny moods, depression, and mental wobbliness,’’ that various crises trip and the “glamorous obituary’’ becomes an urgent story of loss, war, and endurance.

Fuller’s stoic father, Tim, makes affecting cameo appearances throughout. Tim spent his childhood in the cold drizzle of a suburb 50 miles south of London. He arrived in Africa in his early 20s with no other plan than to continue the sort of adventures he’d already had in Canada, the West Indies, and Barbados. One discerns that Fuller attempted to devote the second of the book’s three sections to her father’s story. After just one chapter however, Nicola wrests the narrative away. The reader is left with a grainy impression of Tim walking between the Tree of Forgetfulness on his farm and the river, as if pacing out a “lifelong, sacred commitment to all soil learned at childhood.’’

People often ask Fuller why her parents have remained in Africa. “Simply put,’’ writes Fuller, “they have been possessed by this land. Land is Mum’s love affair and it is Dad’s religion.’’ Once again we see the book’s ever-present contrast between Nicola’s loud passion and Tim’s quiet faith.

Despite Fuller’s best attempts to broaden her perspective, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness’’ is still largely Nicola Fuller’s colorful story. Unfortunately, most of the other characters appear only in silhouette or as wispy ghosts nesting in trees and memory.

Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at jbfparent@gmail.com.

COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS

By Alexandra Fuller

Penguin, 235 pp., illustrated, $25.95