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The Oregonian
Thursday, September 1st, 2011
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Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller's New Memoir Is a Prequel and a Sequel

A review by Sarah Cypher

Alexandra Fuller returns to the African landscape in her memoir, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. It accepts the curious task of being both a prequel and a sequel to her 2001 debut, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. With a love of landscape, a historian's lens and a knack for laugh-out-loud satire aimed at her mother's narcissism, Fuller tells the broader story of her family's participation in the Rhodesian civil war.

Fuller's mother is a "one million percent Scottish" descendant of ancestors to whom "land is good; blood-soaked land is better; and land soaked in the blood of one's ancestors is best." The sentiment seems odd, though, when we see the fervor with which Nicola embraces Africa, and later defends her part of it with an Uzi. She thinks of herself as "Nicola Fuller of Central Africa," a designation repeated so often that it becomes a humorous refrain. It is typical of the memoir's humor, in fact, rising from the author's sustained shock at her mother's gauche, imperial attitudes: Nicola behaves "as if she were a third-person participant in a movie starring herself, a perfect horse and a 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."

In widening its angle, Cocktail Hour transcends a criticism that Dogs, by being limited to a child's perspective, went too soft on colonial racism. Fuller tackles the curious tension between the two narratives: Nicola's skewed version of her place in history, and the self-aware memoir that encompasses Nicola and the simmering conflicts that erupted across Africa as colonies became nations. What unites the two narratives is a fierce love of land. Neither succumbing to white self-hatred nor stooping to colonial apologia, Fuller begins to explore the crumbly moral ground of being attached to a place that does not belong to you. She writes about the inevitable negotiation of belonging, the claims and counterclaims on land, the cultural and personal memories at stake, and the debts paid in work and blood.

Like the rest of Rhodesians, the Fuller family found itself on the wrong side of history, but in losing the war, a series of farms and three of five children, they tell a complex story of adaptation and reconciliation. Fuller reminds us what peace actually looks like. It is not the silent peace of an absolute victory, but the humble and constant negotiation of one existence among others.


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