Ten years ago Alexandra Fuller published her first book, a piece of non-fiction about her childhood in Rhodesia as it transitioned, with lots of chaos and bloodshed, into today’s Zimbabwe. If you haven’t read that book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by all means, put everything down right now and check out a copy. Ms. Fuller’s mother refers to her daughter’s earlier publishing success as “that Awful Book”. We find in this current offering the ways in which her mother nourished and encouraged her daughter’s future calling as a writer. When the author was quite young, her mother advised her:
“Look Bobo”, she reasoned, “numbers are boring. Anyway, you can always pay someone to count for you, but you can never pay anyone to write for you. Now,” Mum paused and gave me one of her terrifying smiles. “What do you think you are going to write about?” Then she took a long sip of tea, brushed a couple of dogs off her lap and began to live a life Worthy of Fabulous Literature. (p. 5)
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness purports to be a sort of background as to how on earth her parents happened to be caught raising their children in the midst of an African war for independence. It is ostensibly about the beginnings of each of her parents, but the focus is really mostly on her larger than life mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa”. There is a sense that this book is a sort of peace offering between mother and daughter. Ms. Fuller, now mature and with three children, can look back at the woman her mother was with great compassion and empathy. There is a clear-eyed respect for the courage with which her mother faced so many tragedies and challenges.
Ms. Fuller’s parents now live on and work a fish farm/banana plantation on the Zambezi River in Zambia. They never gave up on Africa and now, in their “golden years”, are living their dream, farming on the continent they so love. This book is the story of a family, a family with British roots but with a love of Africa in their blood. And it is the particular story of Nicola Fuller, who, while she considers herself one million percent Highland Scottish, has lived most of her life in Africa. The book is so richly written that parts of it twisted my soul into shreds, and other parts had me laughing aloud. The significance of the title comes from the fact that the Fuller’s current house in Zambia is built under a tree the native Africans call the “tree of forgetfulness”.
Mr. Zulu shook his head, “No, Madam. This is the Tree of Forgetfulness. All the headmen here plant one of these trees in their village.” Mr. Zulu held his forearm steady as if to demonstrate the power of the tree. “You can plant it just like that, from one stick, and it is so strong it will become a tree. They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong.” He nodded and took another drag of his cigarette. “It is true---all your troubles and arguments will be resolved.”
“Do you believe that?” Mum asked, but before Mr. Zulu could reply she waved her own question away. “I believe it’s true,” she said. “I believe it two million percent.” (p.215)