Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" by Alexandra Fuller

I feel like sometimes my reading choices take on unintentional themes, and it wasn't until I was nearly finished with Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness that I realized its commonalities with The Secret River, which I read a few weeks ago. Perhaps the reason I didn't notice the similarities sooner is because the tone of each is so different, even though both concern white colonial families at the end (Cocktail Hour) or the beginning (Secret River) of colonization.

Whereas Secret River uses a dramatic storyline to address the rising hostilities between white settlers and aborigines in Australia, Cocktail Hour is a memoir and history of author Alexandra Fuller's parents' lives in Africa, first in Kenya and later in Zimbabwe. The story is primarily focused on Fuller's mother, Nicola, and though the book contains many tragedies, including the death of three of Fuller's siblings, the tone overall is much lighter than Secret River. Here the focus is less on the colonial-native hostilities and more on Nicola as a character.

Much of the appeal of Cocktail Hour is in the voyeuristic appeal of seeing a life so very different from our own. Growing up on a farm in Africa sounds exotic and exciting, though Fuller realistically portrays the benefits and drawbacks of such a lifestyle. This storyline is enhanced by its central protagonist Nicola, a brash and unapologetic woman in love with Africa, even if it's not hers to take.

And here, of course, lies the problem at the core of the story, even if the theme isn't always explicit. Nicola and her husband Tim certainly do love Africa--the land and its (white) people. But while that love is real and genuine, it's also not sufficient cause to take a country from its native people. By the end, the Fullers get permission from a local chief and local government officials to run a farm, which also employs native people. This seems an appropriate compromise which works for both, but it's not the result of a sudden "we should be fair to black Africans!" epiphany. It's a result of necessity, which doesn't make it bad, but it does expose a realistic truth of post-colonial Africa.

However, much of this commentary and the heaviness that comes with the death of Fuller's siblings comes towards the end of the book. The rest of the piece is much lighter and often funny. Because Cocktail Hour covers a range of several decades, at times the book feels pieced together and jumpy. That didn't stop me from enjoying it or Fuller's writing, though.

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