Quick Take: The exploits of Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, by her daughter Alexandra, as repayment for the Awful Book (aka Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra’s memoir of her African childhood)
Makes Me Want To: Learn some history of central Africa, and read Fuller’s other books about Africa
Favorite Quote: Drought! Nicola Fuller of Central Africa is experiencing severe drought! (Nicola’s cry when her drink runs dry at parties)
My Thoughts: This is a beautiful, laugh-out-loud, moving, sad story of a rare woman who exemplifies her frequent toast: “Here’s to us. There’s no one like us, and if there were, they’re all dead.”
Nicola is English and Scottish by birth, but has spent most of her life in Africa. Her first best friend, Stephen Foster, is the chimpanzee holding her hand in the picture on the cover of the book. Nicola grew up in Kenya, and lived in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Malawi, and Zambia. Like Scarlet O’Hara and her connection to Tara, Nicola is tied to Africa. It is her home.
This love of the land and identification with Africa seems to elude Nicola’s daughter Alexandra. Life in Africa is not easy, especially when growing up in war-torn Rhodesia. Children die, pets are lost, schools are bombed and parents battle depression. Alexandra never really explains why her parents chose to return to Rhodesia, why they chose to stay in Africa, and it’s clear that Alexandra doesn’t understand this choice. Reading between the lines, she blames her parents for the deaths of her siblings and for growing up in a war zone. Because of this, she’s not quite able to tell Nicola’s story from this time in their lives. It make sense; it’s hard to tell the story of shared experiences from someone else’s perspective.
Cocktail Hour is strongest when Alexandra is writing about Nicola’s life before Alexandra. Young Nicola reminded me of a real-life Lucille Bluth (I love Arrested Development). Lucille Bluth would never be a farmer in Central Africa, but she might take flying lessons in a bid to emulate Karen Blixen and live a life worthy of a grand biography. Nicola has always wanted a writer in the family, in part to chronicle her adventures. In some ways, Nicola reads as a manic-depressive, and in the 1990’s she becomes so depressed that she is institutionalized. The chronology is not entirely clear, but it seems to be this point in their lives that prompts Nicola’s husband, Tim, to evoke Marcus Garvey: Africa is for the Africans.
In an attempt to bring Nicola out of her depression, Tim begins a quest to buy some land in Zambia that will become their banana and fish farm. While walking the land, Nicola decides the house should be built under a tree, the Tree of Forgetfulness:
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…It is true–all your troubles and arguments will be resolved (215).
It’s a beautiful concept, one Nicola believes, and I like to believe that there, under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Nicola is home. If Africa is for the Africans, Nicola is certainly African. She’s an interesting woman; I’m glad she’s not my mother (such drama!), but I am also glad I’ve met her through this book.