With the publication of her newest memoir, “Leaving Before the Rains Come” (2015), Alexandra Fuller again gives readers a captivating story featuring Africa as the central character. Her readers understand when she says that Africa is the essential relationship of her life—“defining, sustaining and unequivocal.” As Fuller showed in her earlier “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” (2003), her extraordinary background coupled with her sharp observational powers and her gift with language make her a memorable writer.
The thread running through the book is the disintegration of her marriage to American Charlie Ross, a rugged outdoor enthusiast she met in Zambia in 1991. “What I projected onto Charlie’s broad-shouldered frame was an embellished biography that made him both my sanctuary and my savior,” she writes. In order for us to understand why something so promising failed, Fuller supplies the backstory.
She grew up in chaotic surroundings with her parents and an older sister, Vanessa, before other younger children came along, three of whom died. The Eastern African environment of her youth was not gentle—snakes slither into the kids’ room at night, crocodiles flood out of the river, elephants charge towards you and malaria is as common as the cold.
As a result Fuller sees herself as difficult, noisy and unpredictable. She inherited “[her] mother’s startlingly, unfiltered outspokenness and [her] father’s gift for easy profanity.” With her unorthodox family, as a 20-something she is not optimistic about finding a husband. They are “an undertaking,” she says, “an endurance test, for which no person could be expected to train.” Yet Charlie passes the test.
As her marriage continues the reserved, practical Charlie no longer seems to be her perfect mate. She tells us, “it became clear that Charlie had receded from me or that I had flowed out beyond his reach, maybe irrevocably.” Surprisingly, her parents’ marriage becomes her model: “They have learned to make their foibles part of the ties that bind them, their love is everything about them—not only the passion and humor and resilience, but also the aggravating habits, the quirks, the flaws.”
The book is billed as the story of the breakup of her marriage but I will remember it most for the delicious sections when she talks about her childhood and her parents who have the comical repartee of Burns and Allen, especially after the drinks come out. During her unsatisfying years in America with Charlie, I kept hoping her parents would come and visit to liven things up.