Book Review: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Alexandra Fuller speak & signs her books at BookPeople on Friday, July 13, 7p.

Book: Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
Reviewed by: Geni

Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she prefers to introduce herself, has lived magnificently. Alternately tragic, victorious and outrageous, her life has included a primate for a best friend, a fearless (if rickety) ride in a Cessna over the heads of bored, enemy soldiers, and a lost child whose ghost – according to superstition – continued to haunt her womb.

Such a life must have a biographer, so one day, Nicola said to Alexandra, her younger daughter, “ ‘look Bobo, numbers are boring. Anyway, you can always pay someone to count for you, but you can never pay anyone to write for you. Now,’ Mum paused and gave [Alexandra] one of her terrifying smiles. ‘What do you think you’re going to write about?” Then, according to Alexandra in her book, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Nicola “took a long sip of tea, brushed a couple of dogs off her lap and began to live a life Worthy of Fabulous Literature.”

My first introduction to the strikingly memorable writing of Alexandra Fuller and the character of Nicola Fuller, or “Mum,” was in her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, and from then on, I was rapt. The story of Fuller’s life and the history of her family is one riddled with war and loss, and enlivened by humor, loyalty and a certain madness unique to the truly vivacious. Such a history could be trusted to no one less capable of weaving sublime narrative than Fuller. In her latest book, she gives the history of her family back to her grandparents, whittling her way down to the present through youthful antics, secret marriages, lost children, and broken dreams.

Fuller unfolds the familial saga in seamless tandem with the history of Central Africa. Indeed, the tales are not separate, for the region’s culture, violence and perfect equatorial light were both backdrop and characters in that saga. As a clan of proud, fey Scottish heritage, Nicola’s family was undaunted by adversity; they were “bound and determined to be White, and stay White, first during Kenya’s Mau Mau and later during the Rhodesian War.” In some ways, Cocktail Hour tells the denouement of imperialism and white reign in Africa. Part of Nicola’s fiery character is the fact that she is a remnant of that imperial era, still yearning for her idealized childhood in white-dominated Africa.

Whatever themes ebb and flow in Fuller’s new memoir (blood loyalty, race relations, the absurdity of human actions or the line between madness and marvelous élan), Cocktail Hour cannot be corralled into any one interpretation or paradigm. Even as Fuller paints the history of Africa and narrates the epic of her ancestors; she is speaking always of her mother. Nicola is a woman who seems to have stepped right out of some great novel, yet through the words of her daughter, she is made still grander. Fuller details her mother’s madness, her greatness, her neglect and her fierce love with admiration, love, and that little spark of pain Nicola’s vagaries embedded in her daughter as a child.
I cannot laud this book enough, and I readily admit to having pushed it into the hands of many an unsuspecting customer in the hopes of introducing them to a truly great story teller.

I highly recommend reading Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight first, as it sets the emotional stage for Cocktail Hour, but no matter which one of Fuller’s books you begin with, you will experience the deep sensitivity and marvelous élan with which she expresses her stories.

Alexandra Fuller will speak about & sign Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness here at BookPeople on Friday, July 13 at 7p. The speaking portion of the event is free and open to the public.

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