Author Alexandra Fuller grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, which is what drew me to this book. Those of you who have followed my reviews for a while know that one of the most enthusiastic reviews I have ever written was after reading a galley for Peter Godwin’s sensational work of narrative nonfiction, The Fear. While Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness has its moments, Ms. Fuller is simply nowhere near the writer that Mr. Godwin is.
Despite the fact that I am giving this book a relatively low rating, let me say that I laughed more while reading this than I have in a very long time. Sometimes a bit shamefacedly, because Nicola Fuller was clearly a bit unbalanced. Cocktail Hour is part memoir of the author’s memories of her mother while she and her siblings were growing up but is for the most part a biography of her mother, otherwise known as Nicola Fuller of Central Africa. Many, many sections of dialog are used, which is what lends the wonderful humor to the book. You feel as if you are right there listening to their zany family interactions, not to mention her mother’s madcap advice to her children. Growing up Nicola Fuller’s daughter was always an adventure.
The story, however, goes far beyond the time of the author’s reckoning and gives a full history of Nicola’s life, beginning as the daughter of a landed, if impoverished, Scotsman, through her move to Africa with all its adventures in the many countries that she lived in there. While the beginning of the book is full of humor, the book deepens as it develops and Nicola’s life becomes difficult and psychologically more unbalanced.
More than anything, I loved how Alexandra Fuller showed her mother’s personal evolution, both mentally and physically, throughout the course of her life. Nicola Fuller, for all her appearance of being a giddy woman, is a woman of great courage and fortitude, and by the end of the book I found myself admiring her a great deal. What brought down my rating of the book was that I would like to have far more descriptive writing about the countries and their people, their way of life, and better background on the various conflicts. Because I read a fair number of books on Africa, I could visualize, but I am not so certain that a reader picking this up as their first visit to Africa would be able to keep up.
If you want a story of a woman who has lived what is by any account an amazing life, this is probably a four star book, but I docked it a star for not giving me more of the pivotal supporting information about those events and people that must have shaped Nicola into the woman worth writing about.
One of my favorite quotes about Nicola Fuller:
“What my mother won’t say--lost in all her talk of chemicals and pills--is that she knows not only the route grief takes through blood but also the route it takes through the heart’s cracks. What she won’t tell me is that recovering from the madness of grief wasn’t just a matter of prescriptions, but of willpower. [...]she took a different route and she regained herself and that had very little to do with the very talented psychiatrist and everything to do with forgiveness: she forgave the world and her mind returned. She gave herself amnesty and her soul had a home again. The forgiveness took years and it took this farm and it took the Tree of Forgetfulness. It took all of that, but above all it took the one thing grief could never steal from my mother: her courage.”