Book 4 of 100
It’s taken me awhile to write this review. I wanted some time to reflect on this memoir before commenting on it. In this book, Alexandra Fuller (“Bobo,” as she’s called throughout her childhood), recounts her experiences of growing up in South Africa with her parents and older sister, Vanessa. Her story is interesting, but I can’t say the same for the writing itself.
One of my goals this year was not to be quite so snobby about what I consider good literature, or at least to judge others less about what they deemed to be quality reading material. In my mind, part of this goal includes me not seeing a whole heap of merit in writing a bad review. At the end of the day, I’m just one reader. I’ve yet to publish a novel. So, you know, what the hell do I know anyway?
This book came highly recommended to me by several friends, and the premise is certainly promising. I learned a lot about South Africa, which Fuller successfully paints as simultaneously magical and terrifying with exactly the right dose of a child’s perspective. The characters are all also worth reading about; the least interesting, honestly, being Fuller herself, though she’s got a lot to live up, particularly in comparison with her fascinating mother, Nicola. Fuller’s mother is a beautiful disaster of a woman, a spirited alcoholic with a love for dogs who can’t quite seem to find her footing in an unforgiving country she loves fiercely. She is one of the most vivid and captivating characters in a book that I’ve come across in a long time.
There are places where Fuller’s writing is indeed lovely, and as someone with almost no background knowledge about South Africa in the 1980s, Fuller’s story is engaging. The issue I had with the memoir, mostly, was that the book itself didn’t hold up to my curiosity about her life. I would love to get a cup of coffee with Fuller. I’d love to go to a lecture and hear her talk about her childhood. But the parts of her upbringing and her family that were the most interesting somehow didn’t translate exactly right on the page—something felt missing while I was reading. It was possibly one of (or a combination of) these things: There were too many historical details in some places, or historical details without the proper context, or the order of the short chapters felt somehow inadequate, or there were places where I felt like I needed more information or that I didn’t have enough, and the story seemed to drag because of it.
Fuller also writes about her mother’s alcoholism and the death of several siblings without offering much reflection on these topics. I understand the inclination to avoid heavy-handedness or to steer away from memoir-writing-as-therapy, but I do think that memoir (over fiction) has a taller order to fill regarding at least some type of reflection on the events or experiences being written about, and in this way I felt the book also fell short.
Those concerns aside, there was certainly still much to praise in Fuller’s writing, and to follow Nicola through the eyes of Fuller as the family moves around Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Malawi, and Zambia alone is worth the read.
If others have read this book, I’m very curious to hear your thoughts on it.