"Leaving Before the Rains Come" aces the first test of memoir: putting the reader in good company. Alexandra Fuller writes lively prose — economical, humorous and dense with truth. Her clearheaded voice earns the reader's trust even as she recounts the irrationalities of her life — especially then. She's only partly joking when she tells friends that she chose her husband, Charlie, because he "looked good on a horse" when she first saw him playing polo in Zambia. That ironic gap between the woman she describes and the tone of the description is the place much of "Leaving Before the Rains Come" is told from, and it's a place Fuller inhabits winningly.
It isn't necessary to have read "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight," Fuller's best-known book, or her other memoirs before coming to this book, but if this is your first encounter with Fuller you'll likely want to turn to her earlier books, where you can learn more about the delightful characters and African setting you encounter here. She was raised in Zimbabwe, before and after it gained independence, and in Zambia, where her parents live, and much of the book is devoted to recollecting her life in Africa.
From the jump, "Leaving Before the Rains Come" presents Charlie in contrast to her family. He is measured, future-oriented and sensible; the Fullers are pretty much the opposite of those things: a raucous and impractical bunch. Fuller's father, in particular, is a recurring source of exuberance and memorable advice. Looking through Charlie's eyes, Fuller finds herself somewhere in between: "He viewed me as a wild version of himself, a Westerner in the raw. But now that he had married me, and I was out of my natural habitat, my plumage was less shiny."
That contrast, which in Zambia represented escape and safety, comes over the years of marriage and parenthood to feel like a trap. The couple have respectable and outwardly successful American lives in Wyoming — at least before the financial collapse of 2008, when Charlie's real estate career falters. But regardless of finances, divorce always feels inevitable. The tension of the book has more to do with African and American cultures than with the individuals who personify them. "In the West, it was believed that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa, we had learned no one was immune to capricious tragedy." On a long enough timeline, the African view is always vindicated, as Fuller and Charlie discover during their preparations for divorce when such a tragedy befalls them. In heartfelt and gripping final chapters, Fuller is pulled in by desperate circumstances. The book's ironic gap closes, but the steady and fierce narrator remains.
Scott F. Parker's most recent book is "Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race: Essays."