After telling the story of a Wyoming oilman in The Legend of Colton Bryant, Alexandra Fuller is back on familiar territory in this latest book, essentially a love letter to her “fierce, broken, splendid” mother.
We first met Nicola Fuller Of Central Africa ten years ago in Alexandra’s vivid childhood memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight. In it her mother was portrayed as eccentric, alcoholic and mentally unstable and she now refers to it as “that Awful Book”. Now, it seems, age and her own experiences as a mother have softened Alexandra’s stance and the woman who emerges from these pages is a complex, aristocratic, grand romantic. She is also immensely courageous.
Cocktail Hour traces Tim and Nicola Fuller’s own childhoods, his in England and his wife’s on the Isle of Skye and in Kenya. Her mother is, she writes, “one million percent Highland Scottish”, from the McDonald of Clanranald clan. “We’re very mystical, very savage people”, she tells her daughter.
She and Tim met in Kenya, a land, Fuller writes “of forbidding perfection”. Nicola was beautiful; Tim patricianly handsome and they were a glamorous couple. But Nicola’s desire for a glorious, adventurous colonial life was shattered over years of loss and hardship. Fuller tacks deftly backwards and forwards through their history, through wars and poverty, farms that went bad and others that were all-too-brief paradises.
From reading Dogs we know that Tim and Nicola lost three children, but still Fuller moves us to tears revisiting their deaths. Such is her range, though, she moves us to loud laughter in many chapters, too, such as an hilarious account of her mother dressing her up in an insecticide barrel for a fancy dress party. And as always in Fuller’s stories, peculiar characters abound: Nicola’s best friend in childhood was a chimpanzee called Stephen Foster; an ancestor called Muncle kidnapped two Tasmanian aborigines and brought them home to Skye; drunk grannies fried themselves in fireplaces and deranged ayahs pinched their charges black and blue.
The story has a happy ending. Tim and Nicola now farm successfully in Zambia, surrounded by grandchildren and the elderly set of orange Le Creuset pots that are virtually the only things they have carried with them over the years. Their story is one of deep love and endurance.
- Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller
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