MEMOIR REVIEW: "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness"

  • Article by: JULIE FOSTER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2011 - 4:40 PM

The author of "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" tells the story of her mother's life.

Alexandra Fuller

The lush, sepia-toned life of white settlers in Kenya, enabled by the trappings of the British empire, was almost gone by the mid-1960s when Alexandra Fuller's parents married in Kenya. Fuller, who previously deconstructed her African childhood ("Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood"), revisits familiar landscapes but uses her parents' lives, and her mother's in particular, as the pivot point for this rewarding memoir.

White rule ended and in 1964 the Republic of Kenya was born. Fuller's parents, for a time, led storybook lives filled with perfect horses, stellar cocktail parties and sumptuous equatorial light. Soon enough the deteriorating political climate caused seismic shifts in the family landscape. Fuller's maternal grandparents sold their beloved Kenyan farm and left Africa for Britain. Fuller's mother, nicknamed Tub, was heartbroken.

Sensing increasing tension and danger, Tub and Fuller's father moved farther south "as African countries in the north gained their independence." Fuller's parents and her older sister settled in Rhodesia. Tragedy struck, necessitating the family move to England, where Alexandra was born in 1969. The gray skies and soggy landscape could not compete with "the warmth and freedom, the real open spaces, the wild animals, the sky at night."

The family returned to Rhodesia, borrowed money for a farm and soon found themselves surrounded by a civil war. Fuller's father was conscripted into the Rhodesian Army Reserves. Tub voluntarily joined the police reservists. Fuller and her sister learned to shoot to kill; her parents slept with an Uzi and a rifle next to their bed. Their home became a fortress surrounded by security fencing. They mine-proofed their Land Rover. Fuller's mother spirals out of control suffering from "funny moods, depression and mental wobbliness."

By this time, Fuller had moved to the United States; her sister to England. But with his wife fading and their dream of owning a farm again a mirage, suddenly "all the pieces of ritual and custom and law shook loose" with the issuance of a 99-year lease on farmland in the Zambezi Valley.

When Fuller visits her parents' farm in 2010, she finds domestic and agricultural bliss. "My parents' farm is a miracle of productivity, order and routine -- measuring, feeding, pruning, weeding, weighing, packing." Her mother has become one of the foremost producers of farm-raised tilapia. Her father's banana crop creates a "green cathedral of leaves."

Fuller's narrative is a love story to Africa and her family. She plumbs her family story with humor, memory, old photographs and a no-nonsense attitude toward family foibles, follies and tragedy. The reader is rewarded with an intimate family story played out against an extraordinary landscape, told with remarkable grace and style.

Julie Foster is a freelance book critic in Sacramento.

  • related content

  • The author's parents, Tim and Nicola Fuller, in Zambia, 2010.

  • The author's parents, Tim and Nicola Fuller, in Zambia, 2010.

  • COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS

    By: Alexandra Fuller.

    Publisher: The Penguin Press, 238 pages, $25.95.

    Review: Revisiting her family saga, this time employing her mother's story as the focus, Alexandra Fuller recreates a life lived large, in a remarkable place during chaotic times.

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