Growing up in Africa in the 1970s and ’80s as the sharp-eyed daughter of hard-drinking white British supremacists who were equally unsuccessful at managing farms and thwarting black independence can certainly kick-start a writing career. But owning a great story doesn’t guarantee being able to tell it well. That’s the individual mystery of talent, a gift with which Alexandra Fuller is richly blessed, and with which she illuminates her extraordinary memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. Here’s a 32-year-old natural who comes out of the mists — out of Wyoming, actually, where, an author’s note reports, she now lives with her husband and two children, having left Africa in 1994 — to tell astonishing everyday tales that are matched by an equally striking writer’s voice.
Take a taste of a sentence: ”Early in October 1975, when the first rains had already come but were still deciding what sort of season to create (overfull, with floods and swollen, dead cows in our river, or a sparse and teasing drought), a small plague of two missionaries descended upon us.” There’s flavor, aroma, humor, patience, and the kind of pinpoint observational acuity in this that sells memoirs like hotcakes. The anecdote that follows is choice, a standoff between the author’s unpredictable mother and some Bible-thumpers about to discover they’re in over their heads at the Fullers’ front door. (As mother and daughter serve their guests tea from ”greasy and unmatched” mugs, ”the springer spaniels make repeated attempts to fling themselves on the visitors’ laps, and the missionaries fight them off, in an offhand, I’m-not-really-pushing-your-dog-off-my-lap-I-love-dogs-really way.”) In the description of one afternoon, Fuller conveys the dimensions of a whole childhood world.
Of course, as all good memoirists and foreign correspondents do, Fuller describes her childhood landscape — in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Malawi, and Zambia — with a specificity that makes the place palpable; this book can easily stand on a shelf with such fellow regional elegies as Isak Dinesen’s ”Out of Africa” and Elspeth Huxley’s ”The Flame Trees of Thika.”
But unlike her white sisters-in-reminiscence, Fuller faces her colonial heritage head-on. And she does so not in anger, defense, shame, or apology (she is after all, by enlightened contemporary reckoning, an heir to Wrongful Thinking on a continent that has suffered for centuries from her parents’ kind), but with an unflinching, compassionate regard for the contradictions of continental unhappiness in general, and her family’s unhappiness in particular.
There was plenty of particular family unhappiness to keep Fuller’s eyes wide open. Three siblings died very young — one of meningitis, one from drowning, one at birth — unleashing a grief in Fuller’s mother that ignited her binges and manic depression. Her father drank hard too, and marched off to the Rhodesian civil war in 1979, convinced to the end about the right of white rule.
Young Alexandra (nicknamed Bobo as a girl, now known as Bo) and her strong-willed, self-contained older sister, Vanessa, were perpetually covered with flea and tick bites, riddled with intestinal worms, weakened by malaria. People and animals died, crops failed, the revolution kept the Fullers on the move while the climate kept them prostrate. ”In the hot, slow time of day when time and sun and thought slow to a dragging, shallow, pale crawl, there is the sound of heat,” Fuller writes, in respectful awe of the burning hills of home.
Vanessa kept misery at bay by baking cakes in a fury of productivity, growing up to marry twice and mother four children. Bobo figured out how to yell and to forgive, to grieve but also to laugh through her writing, and readers are the richer for it: Even just watching cows, she’s onto something special. ”The long-horned, high-hipped village Sanga cattle spread ticks to our pampered, pastured cows, who instantly succumb to heart-water, red water, and sweating sickness and whose bellies swell with the babies of the native bullocks. They run in the hills behind our house, unhandled, until they become wild.” Fuller handles her wild personal history beautifully.