Emily Hill Emily Hill

Carry on up the Zambezi

Alexandra Fuller continues her tales of her eccentric parents in Zambia, whose stoicism in the face of chaos are now becoming familiar

I loved this book so much I was appalled. Why, when bookshops are stacked full of memoirs by authors who can’t write, isn’t Alexandra Fuller heaped up in perilous piles so near the till it’s impossible to evade her? This is like one of the most alluring Svetlana Alexievich testimonies, as if it had wandered out of the USSR and got lost in central Africa by way of a hospital in Budapest. It’s packed with exquisite jokes, quotes and details — such as when a doctor appears and ‘his gauzy green scrubs puffed out in great billows, the surgical-garb equivalent of Princess Di’s wedding dress’.

Fuller started out trying to write novels before putting her own parents down on paper. The first instalment of their lives was the bestseller Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, followed by the also wonderfully titled Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness and Leaving Before the Rains Come.

This is the story so far.  After a childhood of British ‘boiled-cabbage and gin-wrecked gloom’, ‘Dad’ met ‘Mum’ and together they fell in love with central Africa and embarked on a life of chaos. Fuller writes:

‘I think your father mistook the sound of a champagne cork for the sound of a starting gun,’ my grandmother said afterwards. ‘Your parents took off for their honeymoon at 100 miles an hour and they never slowed down for the corners.’

They had five children, including Alexandra (known as ‘Bobo’), but three died in childhood. ‘If the Fullers had a code it was Keep Buggering On. If we’d had a coat of arms, it would have shown two rampant dogs, a shovel and a gun.’ All bearers of that surname are charming, but it’s Mum who has my heart. Her motto — ‘She wept bitterly in private; drank bravely in public’ — is now mine.

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