Nicola Fuller revisits mother’s African youth in intimate memoir

Henry Clayton Wickham

Being the subject of not one, but two of what she calls her daughter’s “awful books,” ranks among the least extraordinary of the grievances Nicola Fuller can claim after her long and bloody love affair with African soil. In Alexandra Fuller’s new memoir, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,” she revisits the setting of her first book, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” this time to recount the adventurous and hauntingly tragic life of her wild, resilient mother — the self-proclaimed “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.”

Fuller paints in vivid prose her mother’s idyllic childhood in imperialist Kenya, her difficulties as the mother of a white family during white-ruled Rhodesia’s bloody civil war and the peace she finally finds, farming in her old age beneath the “Tree of Forgetfulness.”

As she recounts her mother’s stories of her wild Kenyan upbringing (her best friend growing up was an ape named Stephen), Fuller also points to the story her mother never tells; one of imperialism and oppression. She writes that her mother speaks of her youth “as if she were a third-person participant in a movie starring herself, a perfect horse and flawless equatorial light. The violence and the injustices that came with colonialism seem — in my mother’s version of events — to have happened in some other unwatched movie, to some other unwatched people.”

Nicola Fuller has something of an ego and, as Fuller says, “she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe.” Nicola finds this scribe in her daughter, but the remarkable honesty with which Fuller tells the story may be more than her mother ever bargained for.

On some level, Fuller’s book is about her mother — her youth, her flaws, her plunge into depression and her ultimate redemption — but on another, it is a testament to the unrelenting horror of war. “War is Africa’s perpetually ripe fruit,” Fuller writes, remembering the violence of her childhood. She recalls how her father always drove the family jeep with a rifle on his knee, as her mother scanned the red-dust plains of Rhodesia from the passenger side, holding an Uzi.

Near the end of the book, Fuller tries to come to terms with her mother’s complicity in the horrors of racial discrimination and war. “Few of us pay so dearly for our prejudices, our passions, our mistakes,” she writes — and it is true. Three of Fuller’s siblings die during infancy as the family struggles to survive in Rhodesia’s inhospitable environment. In one of the book’s most moving passages, Fuller describes how the violent civil war left her baby brother’s gravesite unmarked along with countless others. “Humans have an unerring capacity to ignore one another’s sacred traditions and to defile one another’s hallowed ground,” she writes; “Surely until all of us own and honor one another’s dead, until we have admitted to our murders and forgiven one another and ourselves for what we have done, there can be no truce, no dignity, no peace.”

In the end, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa” emerges from her daughter’s funny, tragic, compassionate and honest narrative as a flawed but sympathetic character. Though she curses the thought of another “Awful Book,” through this memoir Alexandra Fuller becomes what her mother always wanted: a biographer worthy of her extraordinary life.­