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."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.
"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."
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."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."
"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."
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.