RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Alexandra Fuller caught the world's attention with her first book, a best- selling memoir of growing up in Africa called "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight." It looks back on 1970s Rhodesia, the country now known as Zimbabwe, when white farmers were fighting a war against black rebels. It was a harsh and even tragic life, where her parents lived through the deaths of three of their five young children. In that first book, Fuller's mother came across as a charismatic, but troubled woman, who drank too much and had a casual approach to mothering. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicola Fuller always called it the awful book.
In her new memoir, Alexandra Fuller looked further back to her mother's young life; an idyllic childhood in colonial Kenya, which produced a beautiful young woman, a madcap adventuress with a predilection for drama. It's called "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness."
ALEXANDRA FULLER: First of all, as my mother said, we don't really have cocktail hour - we have cocktail days.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FULLER: Often stories would start with, well, it was rather a lot to drink, I seem to remember. And then the sort of tale of chaos and madness and hilarity ensues.
MONTAGNE: Alexandra Fuller says in writing this memoir she discovered a mother she never knew, the person her mother saw herself to be - a character of high romance.
FULLER: She, at some point, must've looked around and decided that all her literary heroines - Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen - have flown airplanes, and that this was something she did not have in her repertoire. And that therefore, her biography was incomplete. So she signed herself up with this charlatan flying instructor and taught herself to fly.
MONTAGNE: As you describe it, as she's flying this little plane, you can hear on the radio, back on the ground, her singing.
FULLER: She was thinking "Fly Me to the Moon."
MONTAGNE: You know, there's a moment that seems to sum up the funny side of her eccentricity, even though you were - as a child - often the victim of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MONTAGNE: When you and your older sister, Vanessa, she dressed you up for a kid's costume party. Tell us about that.
FULLER: So mother's fancy dress parties were always hell. And she had endured these awful fancy dress parties as a child. I think it must be a peculiarly colonial form of entertainment, to slap your kids up in these awful hot, inappropriate, itchy costumes and, you know, make them parade around in the baking sun. And so having learned nothing from her childhood, my mother forced ever more killingly imaginative costumes on my sister and I.
And the worst possible one, where she decided to dress my older sister Vanessa up as a rose. And then she dressed me up as, quote, "I never promised you a rose garden" in an insecticide drum.
MONTAGNE: Right, now wait. Your sister is in a tutu pink little ribbons, very pretty, very girly thing. And you're in a...
FULLER: I'm in an insecticide drum, yeah.
MONTAGNE: And a drum that had insecticide still in it a bit. I mean on the inside, right?
FULLER: Right, it was an incredibly toxic insecticide that you dust young tobacco seedlings with.
MONTAGNE: Why don't you read a little bit about that moment?
FULLER: (Reading) Mum explained that when she was in labor with me in England, the radio was playing "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," which was prophetic, because when I arrived, I really was, as promised, not a rose garden. Mum has refused to waver from the story, even though I've since discovered the song became a hit a full year and a half after I was born. And therefore could not have been playing when she was in labor with me. She had yellow skin and black hair. That's why we call her Bobo, Mum explained, because she looked just like a little baboon.
MONTAGNE: And your mother just proceeded apace.
MONTAGNE: She didn't apologize. I mean she didn't say, oh sorry, dear - I didn't want to hurt your feelings.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FULLER: You know, I think that one of the things about being raised British in Africa was you get this double whammy of toughness, because the sort of continent and place itself may you quite tough. And then you've got this British mother whose entire being rejects, quote-unquote, "coddling" in case it makes you too soft. So there's absolutely nothing standing between you and a fairly rough experience.
MONTAGNE: Well, your book does tell a tale of the sometimes quite dangerous and cruel world that you inhabited as a child. And part of that time was in a country at war, a war of liberation - rebels in Rhodesia trying to bring about a majority or black rule. But your mother and father were part of a colonial layer who felt they belonged there.
MONTAGNE: Give us an example of what that really meant.
FULLER: By the time the war was getting towards the end in the late 1970s, there were landmines frequently on the roads near where our farm was. The attacks on farmers were ratcheting up. So my parents didn't want us being on the roads unnecessarily because of ambushes and landmines. And I hadn't understood that that was the reasoning behind leaving my youngest sister and I with a neighbor one fateful January morning, when I was left to keep an eye on my little sister and she drowned. And this is just so heartbreaking.
Dad had said it wasn't that your mother didn't want to protect you, it's just there was so much to protect you from. It just hadn't occurred to her that somebody could drown in a duck pond. And I think that is one of the things about war, is that the common or garden accidents that you have the luxury and to look out for, when you're not literally under the gun, those seep away from your attention.
MONTAGNE: We do, in the book, end up back at "The Tree of Forgetfulness" - the banana and fish farm that your parents now live on, and presumably will live out their days. There's a passage I'd like you to read that really gets to the beauty of Africa and how they see Africa.
FULLER: (Reading) The evenings here on the north bank of the Zambezi River are tremulously beautiful. A shaky ribbon of blue smoke from a nearby village's cooking fire hangs over the farm. Emerald-spotted doves are calling: My mother is dead, my father is dead, my relatives are dead and my heart goes dum-dum- dum. Frogs are bellowing from the causeway. The air boils with beetles and cicadas, mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Egrets, white against the grey-pink sky, are floating upriver to roost in the winter thorn trees in the middle of Dad's bananas. I won't let him chop down those trees, Mum says, the birds love them.
MONTAGNE: That's Alexandra Fuller reading from her new memoir, "Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness." You can hear how her charming mother responded to this book and the first memoir at our website, NPR.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, Host:
And I'm David Greene.