Alexandra Fuller has written a divorce memoir for people who may not like divorce memoirs — a group that, she confesses, once included herself. It’s a distaste she earned honestly in the years when her own marriage was faltering and she sought solace and advice in secondhand paperback breakup books “that came in the telltale, rippled condition of women on the brink; read in the bath, wept on, or both.” She read these volumes furtively and with “increasing dismay,” abandoning them in the backs of airplane seats and in hotels, “a guilty trail of contagion.” One book disturbed her so much that she “tore it into parts and discarded the fragments in separate gas station garbage bins across South Dakota and Nebraska.”
Fuller’s own divorce memoir, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” should meet no such fate. The book is a deeply felt, beautifully written account of the emotional challenges of forging any kind of relationship — between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, parent and child. It also is a rich portrayal of life in Africa and a raw chronicle about the double-edged sword of independence.
“Leaving Before the Rains Come” is not Fuller’s first memoir, but you need not have read her previous volumes — “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” (2001), “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness” (2011) — to be drawn immediately into her story. In 1972, at age 2, the British-born author moved to what was then Rhodesia, and after that country’s civil war moved to Malawi, then Zambia. Throughout Fuller’s childhood, danger — stray bullets, disease and wild animals — lurked everywhere. Three of her siblings died in their youth, one while in Fuller’s care.
Fuller’s cavalier father instilled in his daughter a sense of forthright, if impractical, autonomy: “From the start Dad had been clear that I had to be able to stand on my own two feet. But the specifics of what that meant seemed to elude him — if I could change a flat tire, shoot a gun, and ride a horse, I think he thought it was enough.” Needless to say, it wasn’t.
Early on, Fuller “planned for a life of spinsterhood.” And why not, since any suitable man needed to pass the “endurance test” of her family. “Most of the men would flee a day after arriving, sunburned, alcohol-poisoned, savaged by the dogs, and crippled with stomach cramps.” But one did stay: an American named Charlie Ross, who loved polo and whitewater rafting and whose outdoorsy derring-do was the subject of a magazine story entitled “Charlie Ross: Mr. Adventure. To Fuller, he seemed that perfect mix of edginess and security. “I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquility interspersed with organized adventure,” she writes, imagining their future together as “ ‘Out of Africa’ without the plane crashes, syphilis, and Danish accent.”
It was not to be. After Fuller wilted with malaria while caring for her newborn, the couple decided to move to eastern Idaho. She found herself unable to adjust to an American lifestyle. Then her husband’s real estate business began to falter, and money problems undermined an already crumbling marriage.
So Fuller turned to writing. As a sticky note on her computer reminded her, “You can write your way out of this.” That turned out to be optimistic. She wrote nine novels that were rejected by publishers. She gave birth to two more children. She found her voice in writing memoirs and reporting magazine articles from the edge of violence. (Her 2004 book “Scribbling the Cat” began as a New Yorker article about her travels with an African soldier.)
But none of this could save a marriage that was doomed the moment Fuller left Africa and her eccentric, bullish family. Perhaps she should have seen the signs on her wedding day: She walked down the aisle fevered and drugged in the midst of yet another bout with malaria; drunken choristers vomited in the flowers; the priest warned her, “The first year is hard, and after that it gets worse.”
Despite her hopes to the contrary, Fuller is forced to conclude about two decades later that the priest was right. “What was confusing,” she writes, “is that I had wanted to be saved from the uncertainty and the noise of my childhood, but . . . I hadn’t figured that what had terrified me had also defined me; without the exuberant crazy-in-a-good-way and the disturbing crazy-in-a-bad-way pendulum that had been all I had ever known, I wasn’t sure how to be.”
Fuller is a magnificent, insightful writer. Yet if there’s one flaw here, it’s that her “unfiltered outspokenness,” as she puts it, can at times overshadow the other characters in her story. In these pages, her husband and children remain thin sketches in the multipart drama that is Alexandra Fuller of southern Africa. She is the grand dame of a rich, tumultuous love story sunk by its outsize, fiercely independent heroine. Her final line — “I was enough” — feels both brave and lonely.
Nora Krug is a contributing editor at Book World.
At 7 p.m., Alexandra Fuller will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.