Ten years after publishing “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood,” Alexandra (Bobo) Fullertreats us in this wonderful book to the inside scoop on her glamorous, tragic, indomitable mother: Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she liked to introduce herself.
Nicola was raised in Kenya, where she lived the quintessential life of a White Settler child, complete with dogs and ponies, snakes in the privy and a young chimpanzee as her best friend. Her parents didn’t go in for displays of affection, but they did give her a sound training in their values: loyalty to blood, passion for land, death before surrender. These values would stand her in good stead throughout her turbulent life.
Bobo skillfully weaves together the story of her romantic, doomed family against the background of her mother’s remembered childhood “filled with magical people,” the pukka sahibs who played cricket and polo in a “make-believe place forever trapped in the celluloid of another time.” Nicola married Tim, gave birth to a perfect baby who never cried, and the dream continued. The violence and injustice of colonial life had no place in this never-never land, and no one seemed to sense that the “minority’s complacent picnic on the backs of a deeply angry majority was over.”
We next see Nicola in the rebel colony of Rhodesia, where her romantic notions of the outlaw nation are quickly dispelled by the heat and hostility of the land. Tim is fired with no pay, they lose their newborn son to meningitis, and Nicola falls into a profound depression. But “Fullers aren’t wimps,” and somehow she pulls herself up by her bootstraps. In search of the ideal property, they drive to the Burma Valley on the Mozambique border, where after downing an impressively liquid lunch, they find themselves the proud owners of Robandi farm. Once again things go dramatically wrong. Mozambique gains its independence overnight, the border is closed, and White Rhodesia sinks ever deeper into its desperate battle for survival. “War is Africa’s perpetual ripe fruit,” Fuller reflects. “There is so much injustice to resolve, such desire for revenge in the blood of the people. . . . No-one starts a war warning that those involved will lose their innocence — that children will definitely die and be forever lost.”
The gathering gloom is briefly dispelled when Olivia is born — “an almost redemptive thing of beauty.” But 18 months later she is dead, drowned in a duck pond. Nicola courts death by riding her horse into the guerrilla-infested hills bordering the farm, Tim retreats into silence, and for the girls it seems that “nothing would ever be okay or safe again.” Yet they battle on, “fighting for Rhodesia as if it were the last place on earth.” One day they wake up to find the war is over, and with it the dream of White Africa. Nicola gives birth to another child, who dies after a few days, and this time she sinks into a place where no one can reach her.
She seems to have “run through all the energy and courage anyone is given in a single lifetime.” And yet miraculously she claws her way to the surface, stating defiantly that it was nothing more than “a little chemical imbalance.” And now, 30 years after the collapse of White Rhodesia, she and Tim live in Zambia, in a house built under the tree of forgetfulness, where the ancestors will help a troubled spirit. A 2010 photograph shows Nicola looking off-camera, smiling faintly. Does she see herself dancing, gorgeous with her long auburn hair, her pale green eyes? Flying over impossibly high fences on the perfect horse? Her magical childhood, her lost babies, the beautiful bloodied lands for which she fought so hard? A life ruined by Africa, redeemed by Africa? “You learn not to mourn every little thing,” she tells Bobo. “You can’t, or you’d never, ever stop grieving.”
Bobo tells the story of her long and often troubled relationship with her mother with unflinching honesty. She starkly describes war, death, madness, Nicola whirring despairingly round the house “like a trapped humming bird,” the “perennial hopelessness” of the farm.Bobo is the child with the yellow skin, dark hair and the “most impressively disagreeable expression,” while her sister Vanessa-darling is the perfect rosebud, and all the dead babies are sweet and beautiful. It’s Bobo who writes “That Awful Book” after which her mother won’t speak to her. We leave them at cocktail hour under the tree of forgetfulness after killing a puff adder in Bobo’s bedroom and breaking one of Nicola’s favorite walking sticks in the process. “Which would you rather?” asks Bobo, “Your deaf-mute walking stick or me?”
“I’d rather have my walking stick in one piece.” Nicola retorts. “Right, that’s it,” says her daughter. “I’m going to write an Awful Book and this time it really will be about you.”
COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE
By Alexandra Fuller
Penguin Press. 238 pp. $25.95