Mother Country

Leaving Before the Rains Come BY Alexandra Fuller. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of Leaving Before the Rains Come

The truth is out there. You can’t miss it, in fact—it’s everywhere. But even as we embrace the twenty-four-hour confession cycle of social media, the popularity, and subsequent disparagement, of the memoir reveals our (true) mixed feelings about true stories. We might be lured into tales of harrowing childhoods or devastating divorces, but our internal machinery will monitor the narratives based on the same arbitrary rubrics that guard our own personal revelations (or lack thereof): Is the author honest about his motives? Are her experiences exotic enough to teach us something new? Does he learn a great big lesson at the end, or does he tumble off a cliff into a nihilistic abyss?

Blogs and Instagram and YouTube have rendered brutal honesty and statements of “my truth” about as mundane as instructions on how to twerk or dye your hair purple. Nevertheless, committing your life experiences to the published page is still viewed as an audacious act, one reserved for celebrated authors, public figures, or those who’ve lived outside the norm and endured horrors untold. For every phalanx of instructors exhorting their pupils to write what they know, there’s an equal and opposite gaggle of critics urging them to keep their junior-varsity-level trials and tribulations to themselves. If your pain doesn’t equal or exceed the pain of the reader, you are merely indulging yourself. As a friend from Moscow put it after reading my memoir, “I kept wondering, ‘Where is suffering?’”

Readers expect memoirs to unfold like a Hollywood coming-of-age movie, in other words: A likable character struggles, suffers heroically, then prevails, serving up a salty-sweet moral and a happy ending just in time for the credits to roll. However readily we may gravitate to such carefully constructed narratives, the scut work of pounding a true story into a conventionally satisfying mold doesn’t do much to improve the quality of the insights, the strength of the author’s voice, or the luminosity of the details therein. Some of the most electrifying nonfiction writers—E. B. White, Jo Ann Beard, David Sedaris, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace—throw chronological storytelling out the window and plow right past unnecessary details in order to zoom in on those moments and scenes that resonate more broadly and deeply with readers. The best writers aren’t the ones with the best stories to tell; rather, they’re the ones who know how to transform their small, particular stories into visceral magic.

Alexandra Fuller is that rare memoirist who not only serves up far-flung locales, historical curiosities, colorful characters, and suffering to spare but also resists linear narratives in favor of a vibrant, piecemeal tour through the past. In the best-selling memoir of her childhood in Rhodesia, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (2001), and in her new reminiscence of adult life in America, Leaving Before the Rains Come (Penguin Press, $27), Fuller approaches her experiences the way a skilled essayist might: drawing out vivid scenes and then breezing over the years when nothing of consequence occurred. She presents unforgettable bits of dialogue, toys with sweeping themes, and then dives into the distant past at her somewhat fickle discretion. She refuses to “tell all,” doesn’t aim for a satisfying narrative arc, and ignores the reader’s moral imperatives at virtually every turn.

But then, what else can you do with a mother who drinks to excess, then informs a relative stranger, “We were prepared to die, you see, to keep one country white-run”? What explanation can you offer for yourself, having grown up a white occupier of a black country? How do you weave a moral into a story about parents who greet the horror of an infant child’s death by taking their other children on a drunk-driving tour of their war-torn nation? And how do you mold chaotic memories—from watching your mother save the life of the maid whom your cook has nearly stabbed to death to hiding in one neighbor’s house to escape molestation by another neighbor—into a cohesive, chronological story?

As fascinating as it is to read about Rhodesia and Zambia in the 1970s and beyond, Fuller’s primary subject is not Africa but her parents, a pair of iconoclasts whose unstable and unpredictable existence is about as removed from the soothing, secure blandishments of the American Dream as one can imagine. “They have to be in the ever-replenishing present,” Fuller writes of her parents at the start of her new memoir, “partly because it is filled with ever-replenishing uncertainty; there are always fresh crises coming hot on the heels of the old ones.” Fuller finds her parents’ ongoing immersion in the present both invigorating and bewildering. “They considered the acceptance of the certainty of pandemonium an essential ingredient to the enjoyment of life.” But having been raised on pandemonium, how do you settle for anything less?

Alexandra Fuller, 2014.
Alexandra Fuller, 2014.

When the author, at age twenty-two, meets a thirty-two-year-old American river-rafting guide named Charlie Ross in 1991, she believes she’s found the answer to that question. Ross is not intimidated by her parents or by life in Africa. Nor is he frightened of wild elephants or crocodiles—perhaps to the point of carelessness. But he believes in security, predictability, and financial stability and therefore looks like he might offer Fuller the best of both worlds—i.e., her parents’ preserve of pandemonium as well as the wider, unknown world of living as a grown-up. “I would know tranquility interspersed with organized adventure,” Fuller writes. “He would stay in Zambia because he loved the romance of it. I could remain here, safely. Our lives would be the ‘three rifles, supplies for a month, and Mozart’ of Out of Africa without the plane crashes, syphilis, and Danish accent.”

Fuller’s first memoir is mandatory reading in order to fully appreciate the events chronicled in Leaving Before the Rains Come. Because without an understanding of the chaos and color of her childhood, without knowing about the constant fear incited by the Rhodesian war or the strangely transcendent mood of unapologetic mourning and celebration and emotional instability that hung over her early life, you could never appreciate the grip that Africa and her parents’ odd ways have on her. How else could a sane woman with other options find herself holed up with a baby in a rental house on a bend in the Zambezi River with no running water and sporadic electricity? And how could she reconcile herself to the desperate daily routines of boiling river water, washing diapers, and trying to shield her infant from yellow fever while her husband is away at work all day? There is such a thing as too much suffering, particularly if you have other choices.

But where Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight offered a portrait of resilience and humor in the face of disappointment and loss, Leaving Before the Rains Come captures an even darker story of fervently chasing your lost childhood over decades and continents. When Fuller finally leaves Africa, for the sake of her child, her health (she almost dies of malaria), and her marriage (“the reality of the country had not matched Charlie’s vision of how it should have been”), she becomes marooned in a land that makes no sense to her, married to a man who shares only the loosest outlines of his true self. He’s in charge of their finances and, in spite of good intentions, he hasn’t adequately limited their spending or fully anticipated hard times. After the financial crisis of 2008 crashes down on them, she discovers that they are in debt and have to sell their house, but she doesn’t know the first thing about budgeting or numbers. Somehow, this smart, fiercely independent woman finds herself completely dependent on an emotionally distant husband, thousands of miles from her African family. When she tells Charlie she thinks their marriage is falling apart, he replies, “If you want to discuss this some other time, we can schedule a meeting.”

For an author who’s generally very careful about how much she reveals, Fuller relates the irony of her predicament with a brutal frankness. Having made almost unbearable sacrifices for the sake of safety and security, she winds up in debt, unprotected, and alone. Meanwhile, her family stubbornly believes that it’s all her fault. “Are you sure this isn’t just you being difficult?” her mother asks the first time she considers leaving her husband, a decade into their marriage. “He’s too good for you, anyway,” her sister advises years later—not for the first time.

Leaving Before the Rains Come reads in many places like a cautionary tale for women tempted to marry the first man they fall in love with. But just as Fuller is ill suited to a typical suburban American existence of overconsumption punctuated by minimal soul-searching, she’s also too skilled a writer to pack her many itinerant notions into a simple memoir keyed to the broad, reassuring, and echt-American theme of self-discovery. Fuller’s fragmented style mimics the vivid, intense architecture of memory, capturing the lure of irrational passions and unreasonable attachments—the smell of the air before a rainstorm in your hometown, the weight of experiences almost too heartbreaking to acknowledge. This is how we access our own childhoods, after all: in intense blasts of emotion, snippets of bright sensation, ragged snatches of dialogue. This is how we revisit the strange world our parents created for us and then destroyed. More than anything else, though, Fuller evokes the bewilderment of middle age, the vertigo induced by the unexpectedly rapid passage of time, the confusion that comes with waking up in an unfamiliar place and wondering about the choices that brought you there. Life doesn’t unfold in a neat and orderly fashion, with struggles and suffering bookended by epiphanies and salty-sweet morals. Life is constructed from a patchwork of colorful missteps. Everything is tangled, and nothing adds up.

Thankfully, Fuller’s simplest inquiries follow these same disjointed contours of human memory. They expand in multiple directions at once, a supernova of ideas and wit and philosophical questions and pragmatic concerns and regrets and, above all, honesty. Her words belong on the published page—with or without suffering.

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead, 2010).