WHOA. Have you guys read this book? Because you should. Oh my god, you should.
Disclaimer, lest I oversell the thing: I am a sucker for a good memoir – especially one that depicts a life entirely different from my own. I am also a sucker for good writing. This book has both of those things in spades, so I am maybe predisposed to love this book. But still: Whoa.
Alexandra Fuller was born in England and moved with her family to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1972 when she was two-years-old. They were tenant farmers in an inhospitable land, made even more so by a raging civil war which added the threat of rebel soldiers and land mines to the already substantial threats of searing heat, drought, deadly wild animals, parasites, and the maddening isolation.
My favorite things
Fuller is a master at efficient storytelling. Her sentences are short, almost choppy – and yet they are lushly descriptive. She captures the scenes, the smells, the experience, the emotion of her homeland beautifully, and without a single superfluous word. A longwinded writer myself, I find this both unsettling (but in a good way) and enviable.
Fuller’s unflinchingly honest portrayal of her family is spectacular. They are white Rhodesians on the losing end of a civil war, and racism is a much a part of their African lives as land mines and bouts of malaria. Fuller tells it all as she saw it, from the perspective of an unquestioning child. She does not attempt to gloss over or soften their bigotry; she neither condemns nor condones it. She simply presents it to be taken as what it is: the truth.
My favorite lines
Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, ” Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“We might shoot you.”
“Okay.” As it is, there seems to be a good enough chance of being shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”
But I plucked a new, different, worldly soul for myself — maybe a soul I found in the spray thrown up by the surge of that distant African river as it plummets onto black rocks and sends up into the sun a permanent arc of a rainbow.
The house is more than we can stand without Olivia. The emptiness of life without her is loud and bright and sore, like being in the full anger of the sun without a piece of shade to hide under.
The schools wear the blank faces of war buildings, their windows blown blind by rocks or guns or mortars. Their plaster is an acne of bullet marks. The huts and small houses crouch open and vulnerable; their doors are flimsy pieces of plyboard or sacks hanging and lank. Children and chickens and dogs scratch in the red, raw soil and stare at us as we drive through their open, eroding lives.
This silence is how I know it is not yet dawn, nor is it the middle of the night, but it is the place of no-time, when all things sleep most deeply, when their guard is dozing, and when terrorists (who know this fact) are most likely to attack.
Which is why it is such a surprise when we lose the War.
Lost. Like something that falls between the crack in the sofa. Like something that drops out of your pocket. And after all that praying and singing and hours on our knees, too.
Mum smiles, but it isn’t an alive, happy smile, it’s a slippery and damp thing she’s doing with her lips which looks as much as if she’s lost control of her mouth as anything else.
Mum is living with the ghosts of her dead children. She begins to look ghostly herself. She is moving slowly, grief so heavy around her that it settles, like smoke, into her hair and clothes and stings her eyes. Her green eyes go so pale they look yellow. The color of a lioness’s eyes through grass in the dry season.
Her sentences and thoughts are interrupted by the cries of her dead babies.
This is not a full circle. This is Life, carrying on. It’s the next breath we all take. It’s the choice we make to get on with it.