‘Double ouzo, hold the Coke,’ Mum ordered at the Mkushi Country Club bar, during spanikopita night. ‘My daughter’s a lesbian.’ The Greek farmers blinked at her uncomprehendingly. ‘Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. You bloody people invented it.’
Alexandra Fuller’s wild parents make good copy, as was clear in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, her bestselling 2002 memoir about her chaotic, often tragic, childhood in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).
In this new book, purportedly about her divorce after a 20 year marriage to a ‘calm’ American she thought would be her protector — ‘plus, I was so in love’ — Fuller’s parents again, almost by default, take centre stage. From her new, more ordered life in Wyoming, where she and her husband Charlie Ross went after the birth of their first child, she sent her parents a case of the American insect repellent Off!, hoping to reduce ‘the incidence of familial malaria’.
‘Bobo sent us gallons of Bugger Off for Christmas,’ Dad told anyone who showed up. ‘Go ahead, squirt yourself... Shower in it. Have a bath.’
Fuller’s foray into sapphism, she explains, had occurred because male suitors couldn’t run the gauntlet of her hard-drinking, wilful parents. But Charlie, undaunted, took her canoeing on the Zambezi.
‘One tent?’ I clarified. ‘Just us?’ I took a deep breath. ‘You should know my dad will wave a shotgun at you.’
Charlie didn’t flinch. ‘That’s okay. I’ve spent every summer of my life on my grandmother’s ranch in Wyoming and she waves her shotgun at everyone, especially after cocktail hour.’
She married him at 23, in a state of emotional and physical exhaustion after her parents had lost ‘three children, a war, a few farms and for a while my mother had seriously lost her mind’. Baby sister Olivia drowned when nine-year-old Alexandra was in charge. Her father’s kind words — ‘It was one of those things Bobo’ — can’t prevent her being still full of remorse.
America’s unexpected strangeness baffled her. Notices in Yellowstone Park such as ‘Warning! Many visitors have been gored by buffalo’, and others advising sunscreen, seemed ‘like being in the company of a kindly, sandwich-toting, risk-averse aunt’. But the secure life she envisaged did not last. Charlie’s hard work in real estate resulted in near bankruptcy. Fuller, meanwhile, worked as a river guide and a waitress and in an office, and brought up three children, rising at 4 a.m. to write nine rejected novels before that brilliant first memoir.
Perhaps out of consideration for her now former husband — ‘for the most part gentle and kind’ — Fuller’s depiction of him in this new book is nothing like as vivid as that of her irrepressible parents. Poor Charlie suffered a near-fatal riding accident and Alexandra did her best for him, their marriage already on the skids. But it’s Africa — where the couple lived until the birth of their first child and the failure of Charlie’s safari business — that sets her pulse racing. Her vignettes of Africans moved me more profoundly than poor Charlie’s accident. One such was Josephine, whose baby had died of yellow fever and who offered herself as a wet nurse to the exhausted and lonely Fuller, stuck in a cottage on the banks of the Zambezi with her firstborn, declaring: ‘You are too thin to take care of this baby alone.’ Fuller writes about Africa in a way that is unforgettable:
Sometimes if the wind picked up from the river I could hear village women on the way to their little funerals, ululating their limitless grief. So when Josephine emerged that hot afternoon and her capable hands spoke hungry sorrow for her lost child, I hired her on the spot.
In competing with Africa and her parents, perhaps her husband never really had a chance: ‘I had tried to be profoundly grateful to Charlie for his impulse of wanting to rescue us […] But deep down I always knew there is no way to order chaos.’ Fuller’s parents have given her a sort of stability. They clearly adore each other, though her un-analytical mother is unable to give her daughter advice about her marriage. And, despite depression, she travels far for the births of each of Fuller’s first two babies: ‘Don’t worry Bobo. They all look like that when they’re born. Chinese and a bit squashed.’
Fuller is currently in America, living in a yurt with a new man. But I long for her to return to Africa, or, if not, simply to write about it again and again. She is so compassionate, funny and un-bitter, and her straight-shooting yet graceful prose is the real thing.