Reviewed by Victoria
Writing a family memoir can be a tricky business in these days of ever more sensitively judgemental readers. There’s a subset who disapproves of anything that smacks of ‘dirty laundry’ being aired in public, or of family members being treated with anything less than restrained respect. And there are others who, when reading the kind of cautious, libel-proof story such misgivings provoke, feel shortchanged and wonder why the writer considered their story to be worth recounting. It’s pretty amazing, then, that Alexandra Fuller, who tackles the breakdown of a 20-year marriage in a story filled with riotous memories of her crazy mad colonial relatives and her own bewildered response to the money- and safety-obsessed American way of life, has any readers at all. But the beauty, passion and honesty of her writing are irresistible to those of us who believe that awed head-shaking astonishment at what humans are capable of doing to those they love is by no means incompatible with writerly tenderness and insight.
These considerations are in any case ones that Fuller went through long ago. Her first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, was a smash hit, detailing the story of her reckless upbringing in Africa, during which three of her siblings died, one in a way for which she felt responsible, and she and her sister, Vanessa, were both subject to sexual abuse.
In the years that followed, Vanessa put her anger under a thin, beautiful veneer of calm, while I put mine, tempered with humour to make it palatable, on the page. “I wish you wouldn’t,” Vanessa implored. But I didn’t want to be her, keeping every broken thing inside. I wanted to break everything around me, especially the walls that had hidden what had happened to us. My noise wasn’t a cure for what had happened, I knew that, nor would it be a preventative for what would happen in the future… but my silence wouldn’t serve any purpose either.
The first decade of her marriage to American Charlie Ross, a man she met running a white water rafting company in Africa and with whom she moved to the States after a near-fatal brush with malaria, was spent writing novels that didn’t get anywhere. Eventually her agent told her, ‘You may have some talent…but you don’t have a story.’ And so ‘with nothing left to lose, I wrote the truth,’ Fuller explains. Within days of sending the manuscript to her agent she had a book deal, and much-needed money was coming into their home. But success, as ever, had a way of creating unwanted consequences in her marriage, a union that had at first been about Charlie rescuing Alexandra from the madness of her relatives and the dangers of Africa. ‘For the first time since falling in love with him, I could imagine myself as a separate being from him. And because of that our arguments became more damaging; there would be tears, rages, threats, and afterwards neither of us would sleep.’ And even worldwide bestsellerdom was not enough to prevent the economic crash that would eventually put an impossible strain of their marriage.
Although billed as a memoir about the failure of her relationship, there is actually only a minimal amount of the story that is concerned with the nuts and bolts of its breakdown. Fuller puts herself at the helm of responsibility in any case for most of what went wrong, in her usual, hilarious and self-deprecating way. Part of the blame must attach to her DNA, descended from a mother whose family ‘was mentally ill in ways that should have had a wing of the local hospital dedicated to their memory’, and a father whose ancestors ‘seemed to put most of their genetic energy into producing at least one seriously impressive drunk ever other generation or so.’ Digging deeper into her past, Fuller has the kind of family history that memoir writers can only dream of, and she treats the wildly eccentric cast with tender amusement.
Her immediate family and their astoundingly careless ways have fit her only for chaos, she fears, drawn despite herself to volunteer at a makeshift cholera clinic shortly before her emigration to America. ‘The clinic disturbed me, it was life-and-death, it was tragic and unnecessary – like war and drowning and famine – and I felt at home there in a way that I knew I might never feel in this safe bed.’ Being warned of bears and buffalos in Grand Teton and Yellowstone park, noting all the places along carefully signposted routes where walkers could picnic and rest was like ‘being in the constant company of a kindly, sandwich-toting, risk-averse aunt.’ And there is the lure of Africa itself, potent, wild, savage and beautiful. It has left an indelible mark on her. Charlie was supposed to be the happy middle way, ‘tranquility interspersed with organised adventure’, but ultimately their marriage becomes a culture clash that can’t overcome its oppositions.
There are lots of different stories stitched together here to form a patchwork narrative quilt, echoing the way that marriage is a patchwork of events and influences. There’s the story of Charlie’s ancestors, traumatised by a Lindberg-style kidnapping, Fuller’s experience of her newborn babies and the insanity of protectiveness motherhood brings, her brief breakdown and the dreadful time-critical battle she wages to get Charlie life-saving care when he is crushed by a horse. A constant theme runs through them all: risk and how we respond to it. ‘In the West, it was believed that attitude and ambition saved you. In Africa, we had learned no one was immune to capricious tragedy,’ Fuller writes, and the African way seems to resonate with so much more truth and realism that it is bound to win her over in the end. Gorgeously written, heartfelt and vivid, this is a memorable reading experience, full of inconvenient truths beautifully presented.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Alexandra Fuller, Leaving Before The Rains Come (Harvill Secker: London, 2015) 978-1846559556, 272 pp., hardback.