Alexandra Fuller, neste site                                         



Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness  (cont.)

by Alexandra Fuller





09 Sep 2011

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review

Frances Wilson is delighted by an African tragicomic memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller.

By Frances Wilson


Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

by Alexandra Fuller

256PP, Simon & Schuster


Ten years ago, Alexandra Fuller wrote an acclaimed memoir about her Seventies childhood in the country formerly known as Rhodesia.

That “Awful Book”, as her mother calls it (the actual title, never to be mentioned in the family, is Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight), pitched the colonial world of Fuller’s anachronistic parents – described here as a “make-believe place trapped forever in the celluloid of another time” – against Africa’s emerging liberation.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, a sequel to the “Awful Book”, focuses on Fuller’s adored and defiant mother, the self-proclaimed Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, who always wanted to lead a life worthy of fabulous literature.

Nicola Fuller, who prides herself on being “one million per cent” Scottish, was raised in Fifties Kenya (pronounced Keenya). Her childhood world was seen “from between the ears of a horse”, while the adult world was seen from the bottom of a glass.

Everyone in these pages, even Nicola’s ayah, muddles through in a fug of alcohol. Her mother, who made her own fig wine, spent her afternoons walking in circles while departing guests had been known to wander into the wrong country while making their way home.

Nicola – romantic, dramatic, manic depressive – grows up with a similar thirst: “Emergency!” she shrieks when she finds her glass empty, “drought!” In 1964 she marries stoical, pipe-smoking Tim Fuller, who shares her hobbies and her love of the “leopard watched” land.

Apart from the centrality, and elasticity, of their cocktail hours, the Fullers did not belong to the Happy Valley set, described by Nicola as “cruel and silly wastrels”. Nor did they mix with the Afrikaners. Locating her parents socially is an important part of the book, and the Fullers were “pukka-pukka sahibs”, settlers in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia during UDI.

Here Tim took what work he could find – be it nightclub bouncer or fish salesman – until, in a state of inebriation, the couple bought Romandi Farm in the Burma Valley, replete with white walls, Ionic pillars and 700 acres. It was, chirped Nicola, a “little piece of Italy”.

Mozambique, with its Portuguese wines, was just over the valley. “Here’s to us,” was Nicola’s toast. “There’re none like us, and if there were they’re all dead.”

At Romandi, Nicola raises her two daughters to be English enough to have tea with the Queen, but the “fantastico” life she has planned quickly turns into something else. In 1974, Mozambique is granted its independence; the new Marxist government supports the ZANLA guerrillas fighting for majority rule in Rhodesia. The border between the two countries is closed, and civil war breaks out.

Alexandra, aged five, and her sister, aged eight, are taught by their father to use a gun and by their mother to never surrender. “Over my dead body,” is Nicola’s line on black rule. “Life must go on”. Life does go on, but at a cost. The family lose their farm and baby after baby needlessly dies, the first of meningitis, the second by drowning in a duck pond, the third through medical negligence. Nicola goes temporarily mad, and becomes, in the eyes of her daughters, “like a figure at the wrong end of a telescope”.

Nicola Fuller, the last of her kind, booms and bosses her way through these beautifully written pages, a comic-tragic patriot of no clear nationality, permanently out of place in the place she refuses to leave, at home in her own homelessness.

Her parents, Fuller accepts, belong to a generation that was selfish and short-sighted but, as she puts it, “most of us don’t pay so dearly for our prejudices, our passions, our mistakes. Lots of places, you can harbour the most ridiculous, the most ruining, the most intolerant beliefs and be hurt by nothing more than your own thoughts.”

Today Nicola and Tim live in Zambia by the Zambezi river, where they farm fish and bananas. While Tim fights a battle with the elephants, Nicola’s tilapia are famous for their peaceful, pleasant, unstressed lives.

When we last see them, he has killed a puff adder, she is straining to get the last out of a box of wine, and their daughter Alexandra has revealed she is about to write about them in another “Awful Book”.




WEDNESDAY, AUG 31, 2011 20:22 ET

Witnesses to the end of white African sovereignty

Alexandra Fuller's new memoir tells the story of a family living through the continent's periods of turmoil



Alexandra Fuller's 2001 memoir, "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," was a funny, moving, tragedy-strewn account of growing up in a white settler family in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, and of her parents' continuing lives in Malawi and Zambia. Now, in "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness," Fuller takes up the story again to fill in her parents' early years and family backgrounds, and goes on to bring them forward into the present, to their fish-and-banana farm in Zambia. She also revisits episodes she described in the first book: the hardships and accomplishments of their drought-plagued, war-blighted farming ventures; the deaths of three of their children; and her mother's mental breakdowns.

Fuller's mother, Nicola -- born on the Isle of Skye in 1944 and fiercely proud of her Scottish heritage -- grew up in Kenya, then a British colony. Her family lived a tough settlers' life, much of the time on a farm with a converted army barracks as their home. Nicola's warmest relationships were with animals, though they often ended in heartbreak. Among her boon companions were dogs, a chimpanzee called Steven Foster, and a donkey, the last terribly burned when the eucalyptus tree to which it was tied exploded into flames under the sun's equatorial rays. Her closest attachments, however, were with horses, and of them all, a beauty called Violet was most beloved. A natural show jumper and all-around champion, she was yet another victim of misfortune: she died horribly, her belly ripped open by barbed wire.

Nicola's family hung on through the Mau Mau Uprising and beyond, but, to their dismay, the end of white sovereignty was inevitable: "No matter how many British soldiers were sent to the colony," writes Fuller, "no matter how many Kikuya were shot or arrested, the minority's complacent picnic on the backs of a deeply angry majority was over." The coming of Kenya's independence from Britain and the overthrow of white rule was unendurable to Nicola's parents, and they returned to Britain. Nicola, however, stayed on and in 1964 met her future husband, Tim Fuller, only two weeks after he had arrived in the country.

This tenacious settler-to-be had been raised in an unhappy home outside London, the son of a high-ranking naval officer and his alcoholic wife. He had rejected the career in the Royal Navy expected of him and had accepted a job in Kenya, where his chief duty was, it turned out, playing rugby. After the couple's marriage, he became a traveling salesman for a veterinary supply company, but the hunger for farming was on him. After two and a half years in Kenya, Tim contracted to manage a large farm in Rhodesia -- a country intransigently insistent on white rule and an international pariah. The family, now three strong with the birth of Fuller's older sister and with Nicola pregnant again, moved there in 1967. And here the story told in the first book is retold, interspersed with flashbacks and accounts of Fuller's own trips back to Africa to see her parents and to return to places that had witnessed key episodes in all of their lives.

In this book, as in the previous one, Fuller does not disguise the convictions her parents held on race for most of their lives. Their outlook, typical of white settlers in Africa, managed to square their own assertions of independence and freedom with dispossession of and dominion over a black majority. These views, which Fuller does not share, were an aspect of the reality she lived, and it is a reality she could not have conveyed so powerfully had she encumbered it with apology or excuse. It is also clear that her parents' views have greatly changed with the times. They now live among their neighbors in harmony and as equals. They are true Africans, "possessed by this land."

"Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" suffers in comparison with its predecessor. It draws too much from the earlier book, but more than that, in reading it, one increasingly feels that it is being offered in expiation for the original, hurtful portrayal of the author's mother. That "Awful Book," in Nicola's parlance, upset her exceedingly -- as well it might in its depiction of her bouts of withdrawal, madness, and melancholy drinking. She did, we are told, eventually come to terms with it, and we are glad. But in the present work, Fuller is less the unsentimental, clear-eyed observer of her mother than the creator of a lovably wild and wacky character, the star of episodes that verge on shtick. The unity of unflinching vision and genuine feeling, the powerful note of felt truth does not come through as before; something's off kilter. The terrible tragedies of Nicola's life are told -- again -- and are saddening; and the rugged determination of this hardworking, indomitable couple is once more something to marvel at. One grasps Fuller's deep love for her parents, her pride in them, and her appreciation of their extraordinary resilience. And one senses her desire to please them. That, by the end, is the book's most palpable reality.



  Seattle Weekly — September 7, 2011


Erin K. Thompson 

Running From Grief 

Alexandra Fuller’s tribute to her mother— and the continent that shaped her.

In her best-selling 2001 memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller depicted her mother in colorful, memorable detail. Nicola, now 67 years old, was portrayed as a lurching alcoholic, a racist who bitterly longed for the days of “White ruled Africa,” and a wildly unpredictable manic-depressive. The paperback edition of Dogs includes an epilogue in which Alexandra Fuller adds that she was inspired to write the book by Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club—“told beautifully from the wide-eyed point of view of a child who accepts her mother for what she is, without rancor or resentment and without an attempt to explain her mother’s irrational and occasionally dangerous behavior.” 

In Fuller’s dramatic new memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Penguin, $25.95), we learn that her mother didn’t quite accept that explanation. Nicola subsequently refers to Dogs as “the Awful Book” and bars anyone in the family from mentioning it by its proper title. (Never mind that she encouraged Alexandra, or “Bobo,” as she is called, to become a writer and herself made it a personal goal to live a life “Worthy of Fabulous Literature,” a la Out of Africa.) Cocktail Hour can thus be seen as Fuller’s second attempt to convince her mother that her memoirs aren’t betrayals but testaments of love and family loyalty. It tells the story of Nicola’s tempestuous, bold saga of an African life, which is indeed fabulous and literature-worthy.

Nicola was born on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, but like her daughter grew up in Africa, where she forever planted her heart and soul. Fuller relates her mother’s childhood in Kenya, where her best friend was a chimpanzee, her mode of transportation was a sulky, devious donkey, and where she was by turns beaten by her drunken ayah (nanny) and the nuns at her convent school. “They smacked me and punished me and banished me,” Nicola tells Alexandra, “but it just made me more difficult and defiant.” Tellingly, the flinty Nicola’s favorite hobby becomes the dangerous sport of steeplechase racing, but, Fuller writes, “In her view, the immediate peril of a situation is always weighed against the glamorous obituary that might be written if the thing killed you.” 

That quote could be immediately applied to Nicola’s dedication to life in post-colonial Africa, vividly described in Cocktail Hour, where wars of independence rage and terrorists plant anthrax and salt the water with cholera. Rather than abandon the continent, Nicola, armed with an Uzi, moves from country to country, farm to farm, her family, dogs, and orange Le Creuset cooking pots in tow. (In another episode, she attempts to sneak a suitcase of haggis through Zambian customs.) “You learn not to mourn every little thing out here,” says this mother who lost three of her five children. “You can’t, or you’d never, ever stop grieving.” 

Today based in Wyoming, Fuller writes that her family has never been the haggy, affectionate type. Yet her two memoirs can be seen as her expressions of enduring love for the clan—her crazy mother, her older sister Vanessa, and her father Tim. Despite all Nicola’s turbulence, she and Tim remain happily married on a fish and banana farm in Zambia. While Dogs so strongly evoked Fuller’s ’70s childhood in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, Cocktail Hour delves beyond those years in a proud homage to her parents and the land they love. Her descriptions of the big gold sun, the air thick with gardenias and frangipani, the lakes pink with flamingos, and the stars over the Indian Ocean are breathtakingly beautiful. Nicola’s fierce devotion to Africa, for all its hardships, parallels Fuller’s unblemished respect for her difficult mother. She’s a little unbalanced, but Fuller doesn’t care.

And neither, for that matter, does Nicola: “I am mad,” she says.
“We all know that, but it’s not a problem.”





Book review:"Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" a love story to courageous mom

By Robin Vidimos


"Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" could be described as a companion to "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight." The latter, Alexandra Fuller's memoir of a tough upbringing in Africa, was published in 2001. The difficult portrait that emerged of Fuller's mother, Nicola, led the mom to describe the work as "that awful book."

Speaking by phone from her home in Wyoming, Fuller puts her mother's reaction in perspective. "One of the things my mother said after 'Dogs' came out was, 'You don't know me, and you don't know anything about me.'

"I realized what she meant was that I didn't know her the way adults know each other. I knew her as a child, and I had judged her quite strongly."

The current work is her mother's story. Fuller sifted through the information as a reporter would. "I wrote 'Cocktail Hour' from an adult's point of view. I had done taped interviews after 'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight,' " she said. In the process of reviewing the tapes and writing the book she realized, "We all have this funny relationship with our parents. Yes, we're all entitled to our private lives, but their private lives deeply affect us."

Nicola's experiences are set against political events. From girlhood in Kenya (and the Mau Mau uprising), to motherhood in Rhodesia (which became the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980) to her current home Zambia (where she and her husband hope to be live out their lives), each stage of life holds challenge and reward. The picture that emerges is of a woman who faced realities that often brought anger and sadness, but which also formed great courage.

Political upheaval wasn't something playing out at the fringes of the family's life. Fuller writes of Zimbabwe: "The war had gone on so long and had become so desperate that it wasn't a civil war anymore so much as it was a civilians' war, a hand-to-hand, deeply personal conflict. The front line had spread from the borders to the urban areas to our doorsteps, and if we didn't all have bloody hands, we were all related by blood to someone who did."

More difficult than losing the fight for each successive home was the death of children. Nicola lost three, the first, Adrian, to meningitis. Fuller quotes her mother: "I remember walking out of the hospital and being so shocked that the world was still there. All the jacarandas were in blossom . . . the agapanthus were out, the jasmine was so sweet. And I thought . . . 'How can everyone not understand that the world has come to an end?' "

The guilt and the descent into blackness get worse with each succeeding loss. With the death of Richard, the unraveling becomes complete and, as Fuller describes it, seemingly final.

But it wasn't. Fuller said that after listening to the interviews, she viewed her mother with "growing compassion and finally absolutely knee-buckling admiration. This book is my love story to her; 'Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight' was a love story to place."

Her admiration is anchored in discovering the steel of her mother's character. "Her courage, that's the one thing they couldn't take from her, ever. She is one of the most creative people I know. She had the courage to forgive herself; I don't know who does that. Most of us carry on, limping around with so much grief, so much self-judgment, so much self-loathing that I think we are diminished. "

Nicola and her husband's Zambia home is set, appropriately, under a Tree of Forgetfulness; Fuller writes, "all the headman here plant one of these trees in their village. . . . They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness, and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong .  all your troubles and arguments will be resolved."





27 Sep 2011

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller: review

A witty account of an eccentric African childhood

By David Robson


Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

By Alexandra Fuller

Simon & Schuster, £14.99, 235pp


What a funny, harrowing, ultimately redemptive, book this is. It starts out in Nancy Mitford vein, plumbs Sophoclean depths of tragedy, then guides its readers back to peace and sanity. There will be no more compelling memoir published this year.

Parts of the story will already be familiar to anyone who read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller’s bestselling account of her African childhood, scarred by her parents’ ill-fated decision to carry on farming in Rhodesia after it achieved independence as Zimbabwe. The new book tracks back in time, exploring her mother Nicola’s own African childhood, in a pre-independence Kenya as idyllic as it was dotty.

One of Nicola’s playmates when she was growing up was called Stephen Foster, with whom she went around hand in hand – and who turns out to have been a chimpanzee. “Weren’t your parents worried he would bite you?” Fuller asks her mother. “Stephen? Bite me? Not at all, we were best friends.”

There are plenty more anecdotes in the same vein, most of them featuring the larger-than-life Nicola, a breezy Scottish-born woman with a passion for independence. Her pets, named after her political heroes, include a Che Guevara, a Papa Doc and a cat called Maggie Thatcher.

After a chaotic childhood, Nicola finds a soulmate in Tim Fuller, an Englishman of the stiff-upper-lip variety who is descended from a long line of alcoholics and exhibits a kindly tolerance for the similarly afflicted.

“Bad luck,” he says to hung-over house guests, doling out a couple of tablets. “It must have been something you ate.”

If there are some laugh-aloud vignettes of family life chez Fuller, notably a fancy dress party which Alexandra is forced to attend clad in an empty insecticide tin (“Oh, buck up,” says her mother, when she complains), the storm clouds are gathering. By the time the book has ended, Nicola and Tim will have buried three children and shuttled from one African country to another, dogged by penury and violence. At one point, Nicola is officially certified insane, and only her iron will, tested but never broken, sees her through.

Running through the whole book, gluing its disparate elements together, is the Dark Continent itself: beautiful, dangerous, impervious to change.

When the Fullers try to start a new farm in Zambia, they first have to bribe the village chief with size six shoes, a radio and a dinner jacket. In this darkly brilliant memoir, the transaction is made to seem totally normal. It is the rest of us who are mad.







The Daily Review, Tue., Sept., 27


A blinkered life in the twilight of Empire

Reviewed by Rachel Pulfer

Alexandra Fuller first hit the literary scene in 2001 with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a memoir of growing up white in civil-war-torn Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). The book was a sensation, detailing a childhood spent negotiating artillery fire in mine-proofed Land Rovers, puff adders and bomb drills at boarding school.

Now Fuller is back with Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, alternately a prequel and sequel to the first book. Structured as a biography of her mother, Nicola Fuller “of Central Africa,” as she liked to introduce herself, Cocktail Hour is both Fuller’s book-length salute to the woman who raised her, and a searing critique of the racist views her mother lived by.

The narrative kicks off with an account of Nicola Fuller learning to fly – necessary, the author explains, for her mother to play imaginary heroine in a self-staged version of Out of Africa. We are introduced to an assortment of ancestors: the Scots Clan MacDonald and Captain Allan MacDonald, who brought a pair of Aborigines back from Tasmania.

Sepia-tinged Victorian anecdotes give way to Nicola Fuller’s mother’s memories of a perfect 1950s childhood in colonial Kenya, described by Alexandra Fuller as “a make-believe place forever trapped in the celluloid of another time.” The violence and the injustice that came with colonialism, Fuller writes, “seem – in my mother’s version of events – to have happened in some other unwatched movie, to some other unwatched people.”

Unfortunately for Nicola Fuller, reality is just around the corner.

The stage is set for a life lived according to principles as warlike and tribal as anything Fuller’s Scottish ancestors could have dreamed up. In Nicola Fuller’s world, nothing matters more than land, all the better if it is soaked in blood. How else to explain a series of ever-more-quixotic decisions to pursue a patch of it in white-ruled Africa – even as the notion of white-ruled Africa rapidly falls from favour?

By the early 1960s, Kenya was engulfed in mass rebellion. Unable to countenance the prospect of black rule, most white settlers (including the Fullers) scuttled back to Europe. The family pined for Africa, eventually relocating to Rhodesia in the late 1960s. (That the country had recently been declared a pariah state by Britain, courtesy of its white supremacist government, deterred them not a bit.)

The Fullers bought a farm on the border with Mozambique, only to find themselves taking up arms to defend it. Nicola braved mines, rebels and war’s daily deprivations, but the loss of three babies just about broke her. “You learn not to mourn every little thing out here,” Fuller quotes her mother. “You can’t, or you’d never, ever stop grieving.”

It’s impossible not to be fascinated by this couple of Empire, born and raised on the wrong side of history. That said, as someone who also grew up a white child in apartheid-era Southern Africa, I frequently grew impatient with Fuller’s insistent focus on the minutiae of family life, at the expense of a deeper and wider treatment of the extraordinary era through which her mother lived. Though beautifully written, the book could have benefited from a more ambitious research plan than a series of alcohol-soaked interviews with delightfully dotty family members. (At the minimum, she could have included voices she faults her mother for leaving out, namely the black Kenyans, Zimbabweans and Zambians amongst whom she grew up.)

Lacking that, Cocktail Hour occasionally reads as more self-indulgent than insightful, particularly in the first half. That said, Fuller is a memoirist, not a historian, and what is achieved here is a vivid, fast-paced sketch of the twilight of Empire, animated by a cast of deeply compelling characters.

Most valuable is the insight she provides into the mindsets of those for whom the colour of their skin is sufficient claim to rule. (It’s also hard to ignore the main difference between the Kenyan pukka sahib set in which Nicola Fuller was raised and the white-ruled colonial order established elsewhere (Australia, the United States, our own humble dominion). In Africa, the whites lost. “Few have the wisdom to look forward with unclouded hindsight, certainly not my parents,” Fuller notes.

“But most of us also don’t pay so dearly for our prejudices, our passions, our mistakes. “In lots of places,” she goes on, “you can harbour the most ridiculous, the most ruining, the most intolerant beliefs and be hurt by nothing more than your own thoughts.” Those places might be nearer than we like to think.


Rachel Pulfer is a writer in Toronto. Raised in southern Africa, she works as international programs director for Journalists for Human Rights, a media development organization based in Toronto.