Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
- Alexandra Fuller
- 256 pp.
- September 29, 2011
The author of Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight revisits the life of her courageous-to-crazy Scottish mother in colonial Africa
A Q&A with author Alexandra Fuller is up today in our features section.
Reviewed by Gilda Haber
The title of Alexandra Fuller’s first book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, sounds slightly ominous. Her second book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, also suggests that both books be taken either as tributes to or satires of Fuller’s mother, Nicola — a courageous-to-crazy Scottish-born woman who is proud of her fight-to-the-death bravery and acid wit.
In spite of her fealty to her native country, Nicola has lived most of her life in colonial Kenya or white-ruled Rhodesia, amid gorgeous landscapes as well as snakes, scorpions and Bannon spiders kept as pets in the family pool. Dangers from wildlife and from resentful occupied Africans surround the family, but Nicola laughs off these threats with witticisms fortified by a ready drink and an Uzi in hand to fend off possible terrorists wanting their own land back. “Don’t come creeping into our room at night,” mother says. “Why not?” asks Alexandra (nicknamed “Bobo”). “We might shoot you,” mother answers.
Nicola Fuller likes to be known as Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, where she and her adoring but reserved husband, Tim, have carved out a living from the beautiful but harsh land. At one time, the family is stuck on a farm they cannot leave, surrounded by hostile Africans who resent the presence of the British. The children believe that given the chance, Africans will cut off their lips and ears. The author attends an all-white school with all-white teachers. During this time, Nicola Fuller, possibly a frustrated writer herself and certainly with a flair for the dramatic, urges Alexandra to become a writer. When Alexandra writes Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (for Mother may be there), Nicola laughingly refers to it as “That Awful Book”—her form of praise for a book largely about Nicola and her love of African land, dogs, horses, reading and drinking. Cocktails Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is another “Awful” book (“You’re not going to write another of your Awful Books, are you?” Nicola asks acidly, as they roam African farmlands accompanied by the family dogs). It’s a sequel to the first book, in retrospect, with Alexandra Fuller looking back on her mother’s life in Africa from childhood to adulthood, and on her marriage to the devoted but reserved Tim.
When Rhodesians insist on independence, Nicola, even though she passionately loves Africa, takes change fatalistically, the way she meets every other challenge. The Fullers live during turbulent times in Africa, when European colonialism is on the wane. The family moves from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia seeking a way to live and work in Africa. The older daughter leaves home early, and Alexandra, the writer, much later.
The author shows how Nicola faces all sorrows, including the death of three of her children to illness or accidents, with a stiff upper lip and hard drinking. Fearless Nicola adores putting her horses through suicidal jumps, falling off recalcitrant mounts, landing unconscious and, once recovered, climbing back on the horse to do it again. Occasionally, such as in response to the death of a child, Nicola retreats from high drama and stage wit into silent withdrawal or insanity and is hospitalized. “Bobo” relates these terrifying episodes in an almost laconic voice that reminds the reader of her father’s own unsentimental form of communication. Tim is caring, especially toward Nicola, but expresses his kindness in actions rather than words.
This is a charming book about life lived to the full in the larger-than-life landscape amid changing times. After a long and apparently gratifying life in beautiful Africa, Nicola and Tim find a new farm, settle down once and for all, and join friends and local Africans for cocktails under the “Tree of Forgetfulness.” Here, Africans go to make peace when there are disputes, to socialize and forget their sorrows. Nicola Fuller and Tim, in their last days, join in the local custom, drinks in hand.
Gilda Haber teaches at Montgomery College and has published 40 articles and stories ranging from scholarly to scurrilous. For further information, please see gildahaber.com