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.