Sitting down with Alexandra Fuller’s newly published book, Leaving Before the Rains Come, evoked in me the same pleasure one feels in running into a particularly insightful, articulate friend after too much time has elapsed, and spontaneously deciding to pop out for a glass of wine together and get caught up. You may not remember all of the details of your last encounter, but you pick up exactly where you’d last left off.
In the years since I’d read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, the specifics of that tale had been buried under countless subsequent books leaving only the memory of a good read, but from the first chapter – a mélange of wry humor, a strongly rendered southern Africa setting complete with the sound of Heuglin’s robin and a plague of crocodiles in her father’s banana plantation, and profound observations on loss rendered in approachable language, I thought familiarly, “Oh Bobo, it’s good to read you again.”
Out of Africa without the Danish accent
In this book, Fuller (a.k.a. Bobo) tackles the very difficult material of her attraction to her adventuresome American husband, Charlie, their married life in Zambia and Wyoming, and their subsequent estrangement. Through her journey, she shares her initial longing to believe in her husband’s American outlook that chaos can be managed, in spite of her upbringing in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the violence of the 1960’s which informed her that “for the things that can unhorse you…against those things there is no conventional guard.” Their story begins with a honeymoon safari on the Zambezi River, and their early years in Lusaka and Livingstone with a newborn. In spite of her hopes for a life of “Out of Africa without the plane crashes, syphilis and Danish accent,” her husband’s struggling safari business and a bad case of malaria send the young family to Charlie’s Wyoming, where Fuller begins her life as a writer, struggles with her identify as an African in America, and Charlie begins an initially successful career as a real estate agent, developing the wild places that had once drawn the couple together.
Cover Leaving before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
Two Marriages: A Study in Contrast
Against Fuller’s unravelling, conventional marriage stands her parents’ improbably sturdy, entirely unconventional lives and marriage. While her mother’s madness is described, and feared by the author as the chapter “The Grand Inheritance,” suggests, her father emerges as a long-distance anchor, weighing in with eccentric authority from afar (“Like God,” Fuller writes, “Dad’s rules were absolute, capricious, and patriarchal.”). Early in the book he is portrayed as a gruff man of few words, but consequently revealed to be a man known for “five hundred miles…Because of his good deeds and his kindness…” and one who would sit quietly with his daughter passing two hours with her as she motionlessly endured the itching torments of buffalo bean filaments in her skin.
America Viewed through a southern African Lens
It is Fuller’s unique perspective that allows her to probe America’s culture with a sympathetic but keen, outsider’s eye. In that vein, the following passage was particularly illuminating to me as an American reader about to embark on my first visit to southern Africa later this year:
The United States seemed so settled to me, so resolved, so tamed. Even the wild bits seemed wild in an insistently domesticated way. Americans were not expected to encounter unexpected, surprising hazards. “Be Bear Aware,” signs advised in Grand Teton National Park. And in Yellowstone, “Warning: Many Visitors Have Been Gored by Buffalo.” Mile markers along trails reminded us how far we had walked, and how far it was back to our car. There were frequent watering stations and places for people to eat, to stop and apply sunscreen, to rest. It was like being in the constant company of a kindly, sandwich toting aunt.
Her passage from an uncertain childhood marred by violence, to her early hopes that her marriage could impose some order and allow her to “be all right forever,” to her evolving understanding of her incompatibility with Charlie, is well-trodden terrain, but Fuller’s voice, her richly rendered African settings, and completely unique cast of characters make this a voyage of self-discovery in its own class.
Want to discover the author’s beloved Zimbabwe?
The first version of this article was posted on 18 Feb 2015 at 1:03 PM.