Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
by Alexandra Fuller

Penguin Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-594-20299-5.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 10/01/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: History/Current Events

Alexandra Fuller was five when her mother, best known as Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, began programming her to become a writer. In the first paragraph of her latest book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra tells us that Nicola "loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them...." Alexandra's first book, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, was a memoir of her experiences growing up in Africa, and surely the book her mother refers to in this latest volume as "That Awful Book." This new memoir is a sequel featuring her family with Nicola Fuller of Central Africa as the leading character and her father, Timothy Fuller, the primary supporting one. She includes many conversations with her mother, who often utters some variation of "I suppose you're going to put that in another Awful Book."

Nicola Fuller is definitely a colorful character, albeit a rather tragic one, due in part to her life challenges; with bi-polar disorder coupled with the chaos of life in Africa as the colonial era ended and the natives reclaimed power, she had a lot to face. Although humor abounds in this story, much of it serves to put the best face on a grim situation—and there were many grim situations.

Nicola's parents had emigrated to Kenya years before her birth, but she was born in Scotland. Her mother went home to stay with her parents while Nicola's father fought in Burma in the Second World War. When Nicola was two, the family returned to Kenya; although she was proud, later in life, to be "one thousand percent Scottish," her heart was in Africa and she was excited about raising her own family there. Unfortunately, about the time she began raising her own family, African countries became independent, and life as Nicola had known it turned a dark corner.

Alexandra's father was colorful in his own way. Volatile political conditions made it impossible to follow a smooth, traditional career path, but he was adept at finding ways to keep his family fed and sheltered. The family moved around, and Nicola knew how to use the Uzi she kept at hand, living on the edge of bloody revolution for years. She continued to bear children, burying some along the way and gradually becoming less resilient and falling into deep depressions. Yet by the end of the book, she had come to a semblance of a balanced outlook on life.

If this book were only about these eccentric characters, it would have less appeal, but Alexandra does a fine job of combining the family story with historical perspective on Africa during this time of transition. She gives an authentic, insider view of the colonist perspective and reluctance to loosen their grip on "the old ways," and this view is not always flattering. This "things you'll never read in the history books" material adds considerable interest and value to the vagaries of history and human frailties.

The book is beautifully edited and full of old photos that bring the characters to life. Frequent references to native African plants and local phrases add more color. Fortunately, Alexandra includes a "Cast of Main Characters" at the beginning and a "Guide to Unusual or Foreign Words and Phrases" at the end to help demystify some of the exotic African names and vocabulary.

I especially recommend this story to anyone fascinated with the experience of white colonists who chose to stay in Africa when most had fled, and to anyone who has been to or hopes to go to Africa.

Alexandra Fuller was born in England in 1969. In 1972 she moved with her family to a farm in southern Africa. She lived in Africa until she was in her midtwenties. In 1994 she moved to Wyoming with her husband. They have three children. Visit her website.

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