A couple of years back I had the chance to visit Zambia for two weeks. When I came home, I found it difficult to describe the people, the land, and the culture. In her new book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller describes the country—with its beauty and tragedy—perfectly.
Fuller writes about growing up in rural Zimbabwe and Zambia with her sister, her eccentric mother, and her “colorful” father:
“’Malaria,’ Dad said when his bank manager asked him what contingencies he had made for his senior years. ‘A bloody good, permanently fatal dose of malaria.’”
Fuller’s childhood in an unstable country with unconventional parents was far from what Westerners consider normal. She often uses the words “chaos” or “disorder” to describe it:
“So we came to dinner at eight, dressed as if for the captain’s table, although I knew, without knowing why I knew I knew it, that ours was really a lifeboat flung out onto the high sea of disorder….[Dad] put his revolver next to his side-plate. Mum put her Uzi on an empty chair beside her. ‘Safety on?’ Dad always asked.”
A desire for order, stability, and safety attracted the author to the man she ended up marrying, having children with, and later divorcing. The divorce itself, along with the events and emotions surrounding it, is the main story in Leaving Before the Rains Come. But the divorce isn’t the whole story any more than one event in a life defines the whole life.
The author dwells on details that seem insignificant—her father’s family members whom she had never met, for instance, or the history of a woman she and her husband leased a cabin from near Victoria Falls. But she writes in such a way that we don’t mind the detour, if we are on one at all. The book is, at its deepest level, about humanity, and all of the minor characters play a role: “All beings in a community are connected…the madness of one is the madness of everyone…there is no separation between minds and bodies between people.”
In all of her writing, whether about her childhood or marriage, Fuller is honest. She reveals her shortcomings, and her family’s brokenness, without glossing anything over, yet without judgment or bitterness. She tells her story and accepts it for what it is. This makes her easy to relate to; most of us can find something of our own story in hers.
But regardless of whether or not we can relate to the author, or whether or not we share her beliefs, there’s one thing indisputable to this reviewer: Leaving Before the Rains Come is memoir writing at its best.