“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?)