Review: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller

“Mines are hidden in cake tins and biscuit tins.” He showed us. The tins were bright and promising, with pictures of roses painted on their sides, or small children with rosy cheeks  in old-fashioned winter clothes running behind snow-covered trees, or butter-soft shortbread with cherry-heart centers. “Would any of you open this tin?”

 

A few of us raised our hands eagerly.

 

“Children like you open the tins and get blown to pieces.”

 

We greedy, stupid few quickly sat on our hands again.

Damn this book is good. Alexandra Fuller writes about growing up as the daughter of a white farming family in what was then Rhodesia, in the midst of the political upheaval that would lead country after country in the former British Empire to fight for and declare their independence. Her childhood is marked by personal upheavals as well: the family moves from place to place as circumstances dictate, three of her siblings die in infancy (one — her beloved and prayed-for sister Olivia — drowns in a duck pond when little Alexandra was supposed to be watching her), and her mother is deeply depressed and frequently drunk. Actually they are all frequently drunk, including Alexandra and her sister.

Memoirs that don’t feel the need to editorialize = winners. Here is an incomplete list of things that Alexandra Fuller discusses in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight but does not feel the need to editorialize about:

  • The casual racism of her parents, sister, and younger self (“We fought to keep one country in Africa white-run,” says her mother to a guest, “just one country.”)
  • Her own and her sister’s sexual assault by family friends (“Vanessa tried to tell Mum and Dad what had happened and they said ‘Don’t exaggerate'”)
  • Her mother’s not-uncommon breakdowns, the result of long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder (“Mum is swaying and singing. She has put the record back on from the beginning. It’s the background music to her nervous breakdown. Dad serves up the food. He says, ‘Sit up straight. Mouth closed when you chew.'”)
  • The training she receives in weapons handling (“Vanessa and I, like all the kids over the age of five in our valley, have to learn how to load an FN rifle magazine, strip and clean all the guns in our house, and, ultimately, shoot-to-kill”) and emergency medicine (“I know how to find a vein and administer a drip, but I am only allowed to do this if All the Grown-ups Are Dead”)
  • The violent deaths, violent regime changes, and violent wars that punctuate her childhood but do not discourage her family from living in Africa (“We cheer when we hear the faint, stomach-echoing thump of a mine detonating. Either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed.”)

All of this is appalling to various degrees (apart from the weapons and medicine training; that is just sensible), but Fuller is perfectly matter-of-fact about it. I appreciate that. I do not need her to take a tone of pearl-clutching dismay when she talks about her past self’s unquestioned racism, or the wars her family were constantly trying to keep at the edges of. I can clutch my own pearls, thank you.

I did clutch my pearls a bit about Fuller’s hair-raising portrayal of her family life. Was this signed off on by all parties? I’m not so concerned about her parents, but I would like to be reassured that Vanessa signed off on Fuller’s public recounting of the time Vanessa was sexually assaulted by a baby-sitter.

If all this has made Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight sound unspeakably grim, it’s my failure, not Fuller’s. Her gift is to tell the worst of her stories in a tone that’s humorous without being flip, unsurprised without being cynical, heart-breaking without being self-pitying. Just a really, really, really good book. I couldn’t have been more crazy about the writing. I’m excited to pick up Fuller’s other memoirish book, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, which is about her mother.

(Y’all, I am on a roll. My last four books have all been four-star reads. Do you think my next five will all be five stars? That would be a lovely treat for me, wouldn’t it?)

  • Somebody once said something to the effect that, “Having a writer in the family is like having an assassin in the house.” I think of this every time I read a family memoir (Hello, BLANKETS). It somehow seems a little wrong to profit by someone else’s distress, and yet I cannot resist an honest memoir, and I cannot abide a deceptive one. (Ugh, The Same Kind of Different As Me.) This definitely sounds like it fits cozily into my reserved parking space.

    • OH! Visceral unpleasant reaction to seeing mention of TSKoDaM – ugh! I shudder.

    • Gin Jenny

      Who said that? I have heard it before (probably from you) but I cannot remember who was the quote-sayer. Anyway, yes! I agree! This is a good book fit for you.

  • Holy crap! That book IS good! Double bonus that I haven’t read a book in Rhodesia yet. I just hope my library has this book.

    • Gin Jenny

      I hope so too! I think it did pretty well when it first came out, so I bet your library will have it.

  • I’ve had this one on my reading list for a while now.

    • Gin Jenny

      Bump it up! It’s awfully good.

  • THIS memoir looks like something I would appreciate. I was just thinking about what I like in memoirs and I think it has to do with captivating writing skills and offers unique or unusual story and educates about time/place of which I know little.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, I know very very very little about this place and time. I know that apartheid was instituted across what was then Rhodesia, and a bunch of people were really angry about it and formed rebel groups to combat it. And that’s about it.

  • I’ve had this on my wishlist forever. Going to have to move it up in order of priority, clearly!

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, do! It’s very good.

  • aartichapati

    I have this one on my shelf, so could actually read it quite soon! I probably won’t, but I COULD. Anyway, I shall keep it on my shelf and hope to read it soon.

    I also like honesty without crazy introspection. How refreshing!

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, you should read it soon! What was the last book you read by a Zimbabwean author, eh? Eh?

  • When I read memoir, which is rarely, I tend to go for the ones with good titles. This one and the one about Fuller’s mother certainly qualify. I have to read Too Close to the Falls first, though, because I have to find out why your mom thought I might like it.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, I think you will like it too. It’s because it’s very very funny.

  • I like this one, too, though I’d say three not four stars. You’re lucky to have so many four star reads in a row. I think I’ve really only had two so far this year. Lots of three star stuff, but I’ve only had my socks knocked off twice.

    • Gin Jenny

      Maybe I’m being overgenerous with my star ratings. I have found myself going back sometimes to look at old posts, and feeling I dramatically overrated some of the books I read.

  • This has been on my TBR forever too. I keep wanting to read it, but then worry that it’s going to be entirely too grim. I’m glad to hear it’s now, and that it mostly just sticks to the facts, so to speak, in telling these stories.

  • I read this almost nine years ago, but remember very little about it, which seems a shame, as your review makes it sound so good! But I don’t know if that is enough to re-read it when I rarely make time to re-read anything.

  • Yay for reading so many awesome books so close together! I’ve just finished two 4-ish star books in a row and it’s very exciting.

    Although I am also wondering if I’m being a little over-generous with ratings because I’m rating them right after finishing them, when I’m still high off the fumes of OMG That Was An Amazing Story. Sometimes when I rate books a few days after reading them, I have time to think over the flaws more and thus rate them lower than I might have done if I’d rated them right away. (Sometimes I go back and rerate books, too.)

    But at the same time, what’s so bad about giving books a high rating, right? I enjoyed the story, I had a fun time reading it, and if it gives me a book-high then maybe it deserves a higher rating just for giving me a good reading experience.