By Yolande Clark-Jackson
In Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller paints an eclectic collage of her parents’ life in Africa using photos and stories of their experiences, successes, failures and tragedies. All the stories work to reveal the unique personalities of her parents who live as white farmers in different parts of Africa, particularly Zimbabwe when it was ruled by a white minority. They are the last of their breed and are there to see things change despite the violent wars and internal struggles to maintain things as they once were. The story, however, mostly focuses on Fuller’s mother, a colorful and candid character who admits she is not mentally stable.
Besides Fuller’s wit and her vivid storytelling, what works in this book is Fuller’s use of time markers. Fuller is not a linear storyteller, and in writing creative nonfiction, it is sometimes difficult to give readers markers of when certain events actually happened since the writer is dealing with memory and shaping time into meaning instead of into a biography or a historical account. Fuller solves this dilemma by telling specific stories in the order that will achieve her goal which is to show her readers how her parents developed into the people they have become. She does in each chapter by grouping a set of stories with a photo and a date that help to present theme and setting.
The book is divided into three parts, and at the beginning of each chapter in all three parts, she includes a picture with a date and caption. For example, the chapter entitled, “Nicole Huntington Learns to Ride” includes a picture of her Fuller’s mother in Kenya at about age seven or eight in overalls, standing barefoot on the saddle of a white horse. This chapter shares how her mother’s love of horses began. Yet, she doesn’t begin talking about a horse; she begins with a story of a donkey who meets a terrible fate outside her mother’s’ convent school.
The stories jump around weaving in and out of time and place, so the dates beneath the captions beneath the photos help the reader keep track of time and place. When making these shifts in time, it helps to have something to ground the story. The construction of her chapters and inclusion of photos help to do this.
Fuller shares lots of wild and interesting family stories that make up over fifty years and three generations on the continent of Africa. It is easy to get lost in time while reading. Through each chapter, however, the reader is able to navigate the past and the landscape of the continent through the eyes of the Fuller family.