three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
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A-Cocktail HourAlexandra Fuller burst onto the literary scene in 2001 with a memoir about growing up during the Rhodesian civil war (Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood [2001]). In this combined prequel and sequel, she turns her attention to her mother's experience of Africa. Reviewed: Scribbling the Cat: Travels With an African Soldier (2.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004), which is about Fuller's return to Africa and her journey through its war-torn land.

The Topic: Born in Scotland in 1944, Nicola Huntingford moved as a girl to Kenya, and the land grabbed hold of her heart. Her daughter, now a resident of the United States, recounts Nicola's charmed and eccentric childhood (one of her closest friends was a chimpanzee) and her marriage to Tim Fuller, who grew up outside London and thirsted for African adventure. Eventually, some of the charm of colonial life begins to fade when the family moves to Rhodesia: several of Nicola's children die, and when civil war erupts, even starry-eyed Nicola cannot remain totally immune to politics. Still, her love of the African landscape--particularly her present home on a peaceful banana-and-fish farm in Zimbabwe, built under the tree of forgetfulness--never falters.
Penguin. 238 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594202995

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Fuller's narrative is a love story to Africa and her family. ... The reader is rewarded with an intimate family story played out against an extraordinary landscape, told with remarkable grace and style." Julie Foster

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In widening its angle, Cocktail Hour transcends a criticism that Dogs, by being limited to a child's perspective, went too soft on colonial racism. Fuller tackles the curious tension between the two narratives: Nicola's skewed version of her place in history, and the self-aware memoir that encompasses Nicola and the simmering conflicts that erupted across Africa as colonies became nations. What unites the two narratives is a fierce love of land." Sarah Cypher

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]he center of this book is Nicola. ... It's an artistic and emotional feat to write about a narcissistic mother with humor, compassion, and ultimately love." Judy Bolton-Fasman

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"This is a memoir that a mother could love--which is good, since the author's own mum hated her last one. ... Fans of Don't Let's Go might be disappointed to find many of the same stories recounted with less depth here--Nicola's wrenching mental breakdown warrants only a few pages--but Cocktail really shines when it showcases the matriarch's wicked sense of humor." Melissa Maerz

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"[S]he conveys the magnetic pull that Africa could exert on the colonials who had a taste for it, the powerful feeling of attachment. She does not really explain that feeling--she is a writer who shows rather than tells--but through incident and anecdote she makes its effects clear, and its costs." Martin Rubin

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"[Fuller] tells the story of her long and often troubled relationship with her mother with unflinching honesty." Binka Le Breton

Critical Summary

In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Fuller has given her colorful, larger-than-life mother her due. Some fans might feel that this prequel/sequel simply repeats the tales she told about Rhodesia in Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight. Most readers, however, will appreciate her bringing two different adult points of view--her mother's perspective and her own adult insights--to a narrative previously told by a child narrator. Nonetheless, a few critics felt that despite Fuller's attempt to broaden her scope, the memoir focuses too much on Nicola Fuller at the behest of other characters, who "appear only in silhouette or as wispy ghosts nesting in trees and memory" (Boston Globe). But Fuller's prose is fresh, her eye for detail keen, her sense of humor sharp, and her handling of time--always a tricky task for a memoirist--masterful.