Amurph11’s CBR4 Review #23, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
“You learn not to mourn every little thing out here, or you’d never, ever stop grieving.” –Alexandra Fuller
I tend to hate memoirs – they’re always either too loud or too quiet, too self-aware or not nearly self-aware enough – but Alexandra Fuller is a welcome exception. Her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, is an active argument for the ability of memoir to transcend. It is a tragic, larger than life story, with a setting that is so stereotypically exotic it could only have been brought to us by Colonialism™. It had all the elements of a Grand, Sweeping African Memoir, but Fuller wisely eschews that route, choosing to focus less on the romantic aspects of tragedy and more on the human weirdness of it.
You get the idea pretty early into Fuller’s second memoir, that her mother would have preferred the grand, sweeping version. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness is a memoir filtered primarily through the perspective of Fuller’s mother, Nicola Fuller (of Central Africa). Nicola refers to Alexandra’s first memoir as “the Awful Book.” Despite her lifelong desire to inspire literature – as her daughter puts it, “not only because she loves books and has therefore always wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them), but also because she has always wanted to live a fabulously romantic life, for which she needed a reasonably pliable witness as scribe.” – Nicola is not satisfied with Fuller’s distinctly unromantic version of their family. “The kind of biography she hoped to inspire,” Fuller goes on to say, was “something along the lines of ‘West With the Night,’ The Flame Trees of Thika,’ or ‘Out of Africa.'”
Even despite her lack of romanticism, Nicola Fuller couldn’t have asked for a better scribe than her daughter. The portrait she creates of her mother is witty and bombastic, graceful in a funny, gangly sort of way. She writes about her foibles and eccentricities with warmth and believability, but mostly, she writes about her pain in a way that is honest. That’s a hard thing to do in any case, but it is especially so if you’re writing about someone you are close to, and most especially if that person is your mother. Nicola Fuller is a woman of many wounds, many of which are self-inflicted, and some of which are the result of plain dumb luck, but all of which are written with a tremendous balance of sympathy and honesty. It takes a very particular psyche to live voluntarily in a war zone, and Fuller unabashedly incises it, taking it apart and examining each piece with an refreshing lack of melodrama.
Indeed, Fuller’s best writing comes out of the understanding she exhibits of growing up in a war zone, and the effect it has on the people who are in it. At one point, she describes a scene in which her mother checks her Uzi magazine for rounds before heading off to a Fancy Dress Party, a weird and hilarious scene that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever lived in a war zone. “War became our climate,” she remembers, “something you didn’t feel you could do much about and that you might remark on casually, using the same language might use to describe the weather: ‘Phew, things are getting hot this week.'” Fuller does a beautiful job illustrating both the sum toll that that kind of unrest takes on a person’s mental health and the kind of personality required to choose to live there in the first place. But any psychological study could tell you that; like every good story, what makes Fuller’s so affecting is her love for her characters. The way she balances the childlike awe of her larger-than-life mother with the unapologetic observance of an adult that has long since identified the fine line between interesting and mentally ill – and exactly where her mother crossed it – is nothing short of brilliant.
Nicola Fuller’s life is one of humor and tragedy, resilience and a stubborn refusal to change. It’s a great story, and a goddamn pleasure to read. And though it’s not quite the grand, romantic colonialist vision of Out of Africa she had in mind, one hopes that one day she will look at this magnificently written labour of love and on the whole, find herself satisfied.
Recommended for: there’s got to be a slim overlap of people who hate the likes of James Frey and Augusten Burroughs, but truly and unironically enjoy the musical stylings of Toto. I feel like those people would really enjoy this book.
Read When: you need to gain some perspective on the comparatively infestiminal tragedy of your own life. Because seriously, everything bad happens to this family.
Listen With: Toto. Obviously. If you have to ask which song, you don’t deserve Toto or this book.