No one captures forces of nature – human and otherwise – with the wry insight of British author Alexandra Fuller. In 2001, her spellbinding memoir “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” chronicled her tumultuous African childhood amid beauty, danger and outrageously colorful characters. Now, she reveals more personal history in her smashing follow-up memoir Leaving Before the Rains Come and explores the costs of escaping in a bid to keep the world’s chaos at bay.
“I did not know,” she writes, “that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you, for the things that toy with your internal tide – against those things, there is no conventional guard.” But she will learn.
A British expatriate raised mainly in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Zambia in the 1970s and 1980s, Fuller grows up amid untamed creatures, including – and especially – her relatives. Her father, mother and sister are full of flinty eccentricity and sky-high tolerance for risk and chaos.
Readers of Fuller’s 2001 book, her first, and her subsequent memoir about her mother will be familiar with these general themes. But this time around, the antics of her barmy family share center stage with Fuller herself, as she unspools the story of her surprisingly rocky life since childhood.
It turns out that while Fuller loves Africa and her family’s “outrageous courage,” she sought “a predictable, chartable future.” The kind you might find with an American in America, where risk is controlled – at least in theory – by rules and regulations, sunscreen and hand sanitizer, and warning signs galore.
And so she moves to Wyoming with her new husband who finds his god in the wilderness: “Instead of the Bible, he read whitewater and lines of rock... Instead of bowing down before any god, he submitted to the superior power of a class five rapid. It was worship, but it was rational worship.”
Fuller loves nature too but in an entirely different way. She recalls how southern Africans find warfare, not sanctuary, in the wilderness, and often go there to lose themselves in madness and “living suicide.” In Africa, the wild is not a place to be appreciated and enjoyed and then left behind for a cubicle or a couch in a condo.
She finds other differences between herself and her husband. He’s one of those millions of Americans who know war mainly from television, not Africa-style death at the doorstep: “Charlie didn’t burn through the present, or drown it out, or wash up against it, because his past had left him intact. He had a future to look forward to.”
“Leaving Before the Rains Come,” whose title hints at its risk-aversion theme, succeeds because it’s always honest and never precious. Fuller offers lessons about life here, but they don’t flash in neon, and she never portrays herself as anything but a flawed person. While deeply generous and never mean to the people she portrays, she’s also angry, prone to misery and forever in search of unconditional love.
If anything, the memoir is almost too open – brutally so – about sexual violence in Fuller’s childhood and the collapse of her marriage. Her humor and appreciation for absurdity will convert readers into Fuller fans who want the best for her, and it’s wrenching to learn about her suffering.
In the big picture of “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” Fuller seeks to understand how people deal with risk, with death and with time itself. Her family is Exhibit A, with its pain masked by isolation, “unbridled bonhomie” and exuberant excess. But she has her eye on greater truths, and she finds them through not only her own experiences but those of her husband’s family – it masks pain of its own – and her adopted country.
“In Africa,” she writes, “we filled up all available time busily doing not much, and then we wasted the rest.” But in America, urgency rules, and time must not be wasted. “Of course, I changed and sped up.”
In many people, she suggests, there’s nothing but efficiency, routines and numbers instead of “epiphanies and insights”: “How few of us ever surrender, even briefly, to the sacred terror and beauty of the other way.”