Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness  by Alexandra Fuller
256 pages
Published August 2011 by Penguin Group
Source: the publisher & TLC Book Tours

How to summarize Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness? It is, at it's heart, the story of Alexandra Fuller's mother, Nicola who was born on the Scottish Isle of Skye but spent nearly all of her life in Africa. She certainly is the central character around whom all others orbit and a woman who lived her life so that she would have a biography worth telling. But Africa itself is the star of this book as Fuller chronicles her family's lives through a period when the entire continent was changing profoundly.

In Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller has spent hours interviewing her parents, primarily on vacation in South Africa where they spend hours literally having cocktails under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Ironic, isn't it, that nothing is forgotten under that tree?

Nicola's childhood was both typically British (stiff upper lip, loyalty to blood, that kind of thing) and utterly unusual.
"I used to run away from our bungalow, which was on the edge of the estate, and go over to the main house and play in her [their landlord's] garden with my first best friend, Stephen Foster." Mum smiles at the memory. "Stephen and I used to take turns pushing each other on his tricycle. We wore matching romper suits. We had tea parties. We went everywhere together, hand in hand."
"Stephen was Zoe's son?" I guess.
Mum frowns. "No, no, no," she says. "Stephan wasn't her son. Stephan was her chimpanzee."
There is a small, appalled pause while I try - and fail - to imagine sending one of my toddlers off to play with a chimpanzee.
"Weren't your parents worried he would bite you?" I ask.
Mum give me a look as if I have just called Winnie the Pooh a pedophile, "Stephen? Bite me? Not at all, we were best friends. He was a very, very nice, very civilized chimpanzee. Anyway, my mother didn't worry about me too much. She knew I would always be all right because everywhere I went Topper came with me."
"And Topper was?"
"A dog my father rescued," Mum says."
That passage says so much about the way that Nicola was raised, the way that she raised her own children. No fenced yards or stranger danger for them and animals were, truly part of the family. Nicola and Fuller's father, Tim, met in Africa and only during a period of extreme poverty and sadness did they return to Britain. But there was something about the light of Africa, the air, the opportunity, that drew them back, even when it meant settling in Rhodesia at a time when that country had been cut off by Britain.
"We accepted the war as one of the prices that had to be paid for Our Freedom, although it was a funny sort of Freedom that didn't include being able to say what you wanted about the Rhodesian government or being able to write books that were critical of it. And for the majority of the country, Freedom did not include access to public restrooms, the sidewalks, the best schools and hospitals, decent farming land or the right to vote."
Do you know the line people mock about movies - "I laughed, I cried...?" That was this book for me. I read long passages of this book to my poor husband (why are those passages never as funny when you aren't actually reading the book?), laughing. Then there were places where my heart broke for the Fullers and other passages where I gasped in disbelief at the horrors of war. Fuller places her family squarely into the reality of Africa as native Africans begin fighting to take back their continent.
"War is Africa's perpetual ripe fruit. There is so much injustice to resolve, such desire for revenge in the blood of the people, such crippling corruption of power, such unseemly scramble for the natural resources. The wind of power shirts and there go the fruit again, tumbling toward the ground, each war more inventively terrible than the last."
I loved this book. Although it skipped around quite a bit and it could sometimes take a bit to settle yourself back into where you were at in time and how it related to what else you had read, I ultimately far preferred Fuller's style than if she had tried to tell the story of her family in a more linear way. I grew to understand, at least a bit, what it was about Africa, that drew Fuller's parents and grandparents back to the continent, even at great personal risk. And I fell in love with Nicola, a woman who, at first glance, would appear to be one of the most thoughtless mothers you've ever read about. Not cruel, really, just a product of her upbringing and life. But Fuller, herself, clearly loves her mother, a woman of whom she says "the broken, splendid, fierce mother I have."

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for including me on this tour! For other opinions about the book, check out the full tour for this book. To learn more about Fuller, check out her website, where you can also learn more about her first memoir, Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, a book Nicola forever after referred to as that Awful Book.


  1. Fuller is one of this season's speakers at a lecture series I attend with my book club. I plan to read both of her books beforehand... so glad to hear you loved this!

  2. What a lovely title this book has! Nice review, this one looks like an interesting read.

  3. I have been wondering about this book and have not seen many reviews. Yours makes me think that this is book that I might really like. I think the relationship between the mother and daughter sounds very interesting. I am always amazed when a relationship between a mother and child seems broken and unglued, but the child doesn't hold a grudge at all.

  4. You are right sometimes things do not sound as funny when we read them out to someone :)

    This sounds like a fine read :) You read a lot of non-fiction, which is very good, or else I would never know of such fine books.

  5. I loved Don't Lets Go To the Dogs Tonight (and aside: WHY do her titles have to be so darn long??), but that was plenty of grimness all by itself.

  6. I have LOVED her two previous books so I can't wait to read this one.

    Thanks for being on the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

  7. This is the second time today that I am coming across this book! Sounds fabulous! I have it wishlisted!

  8. Excellent review! You have captured everything I wanted to say and more.

  9. I am glad to hear that you liked this book so much - I read "Let's Not Go To the Dogs Tonight" (Agree with Jill re: the long titles) and loved it so I am excited to read the next installment about this family's life in Africa.

    btw - nice new blog design!