After the brilliance of the title Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight for Alexandra Fuller’s earlier memoir, you might find Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness a little clunky. In the same way, I began Cocktail Hour… with some skepticism. Was Fuller just going back to the well, revisiting the scene of her earlier success? It looked like it, though there was a new streak of anger here, as Fuller sketched a portrait of her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.” Grandiose, hard-drinking, manipulative; this is a pretty familiar — though very funny — monster-mother profile. Was Cocktail Hour… just Mommie Dearest with red earth, leopard, and Uzis?
Well, no. Because I think what I’m beginning to understand is that nothing in Africa plays out as it would anywhere else. And what’s refreshing about Cocktail Hour… is that Alexandra Fuller doesn’t dodge the ugly stuff. This book is not about nostalgia and how lovely life was when the whites were still in charge. “When I was a child, Mum presented Kenya to me as a place of such forbidding perfection that its flawlessness shattered in the telling and what I was left holding onto were shards of equatorial light… Kenya, in Mum’s telling,… was worth dying for if you were white (if you were black and you wanted to die for Kenya, that was another matter altogether. Then you were an unpleasant, uppity Kikuyu anarchist.)” But after the ejection from Eden and a return to grim, damp post-war England, Nicola Huntingford couldn’t stay away. She returned to Nairobi and met and married the handsome Tim Fuller, who was fundamentally a farmer. But the story takes place in the 1960s and ’70s, when being a farmer in Africa meant being a minority white person not only employing black workers but occupying or owning land that had not so long ago been seized from natives.
The Fuller itinerary is confusing. First Kenya, then a reluctant spell in England. Then a foray into the former Rhodesia, which had, in 1965, unilaterally broken from the British Commonwealth and become a rogue nation. Then another spell in England (still damp and depressing) and then a return to Rhodesia. “We longed for the warmth and freedom, the real open spaces, the wild animals, the sky at night,” says Nicola in an unguarded moment. More frankly, Alexandra adds, “”What Mum didn’t say, but what she means is that she wanted to stay in White-ruled Africa…The other thing Mum cannot bring herself to say… is that her determination to stay in White-ruled Africa was the costliest decision of her life. The worst kind of costly; life and death kind of costly.” Because Rhodesia skidded into a guerilla war that would eventually turn the white-run country into majority-rule Zimbabwe. Tim Fuller had to spend more than half the year fighting in the hills, at six-week intervals, leaving Nicola on the farm with the children. They never went anywhere without an Uzi, and their Range Rover was mine-proofed. “Even at this late date, we carried on fighting for Rhodesia as if it were the last place on earth, as if to lose it would be the same as losing ourselves.”
And maybe it would have been. The Fullers lost a lot. Three children. Years. Household goods beyond counting. Sanity, too — Nicola spent considerable time being put back together by “a very talented psychiatrist.” Yet there they are, still in Africa, on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia, farming fish. It’s not an easy life, but it’s a rich one. The Tree of Forgetfulness is a real tree. Tim Fuller’s right-hand-man Mr. Zulu claims “They say ancestors stay inside it.” And Nicola Fuller of Central Africa is revealed as a woman whose primary attribute is courage.