Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Alexandra Fuller has written three memoirs about herself and her family: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Leaving Before the Rains Come. Cocktail Hour is the first I have read, though I have also enjoyed her novel, Quiet Until the Thaw.

Cocktail Hour focuses on the author’s extraordinary mother Nicola Fuller, a white woman of Scottish heritage, who grew up in Africa and has lived most all of her life there. Her childhood was in Kenya where she became a skilled, perhaps reckless, horsewoman. At twenty she married Tim Fuller and a series of events led the young family to leave Kenya for a farm in White-ruled Rhodesia. There, the war of independence eventually forced them to again abandon their home. As the memoir comes to its conclusion, the parents, now in their sixties, operate a “fish and banana” farm in Zambia. At one level this is the story of a family swimming resolutely against the tide of history.

Nicola Fuller is revealed as a beautiful, charismatic, courageous woman who aspires to live a very romantic life. She and her husband share a strong attachment to each other, to their children, to the light and the soil of the Africa they know and love. They also share a great fondness for dogs and horses, for alcohol and adventure. As they endure hardships and a series of profound tragedies, including the deaths of three children, Nicola verges at times on the edge of madness and Tim struggles to hold their lives and family together.

Every page of this memoir is a pleasure to read. There are beautiful descriptions, considerable humor, heart-wrenching turns of fate. Most remarkable is the tone Ms. Fuller brings to her story. She obviously loves and admires her parents and appreciates the upbringing they gave her, but she insists on portraying them with a clear-eyed precision that is never maudlin, sugar-coated or romanticized. She leads us through turmoil and loss and delivers us to the farm in Zambia where at book’s end we find her parents at home and at peace.

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