1.18.2015

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | LEAVING BEFORE THE RAINS COME - ALEXANDRA FULLER


Looking to rebuild after a painful divorce, Alexandra Fuller turns to her African past for clues to living a life fully and without fear.
 
     A child of the Rhodesian wars and daughter of 2 deeply complicated parents, Alexandra Fuller is no stranger to pain. But the disintegration of Fuller's own marriage leaves her shattered. Looking to pick up the pieces of her life, she confronts the tough questions about her past, about the American man she married, and the family she left behind in Africa. A breathtaking achievement,
Leaving Before the Rains Come is a memoir of such grace and intelligence, filled with such wit and courage, that it could only have been written by Alexandra Fuller.


   
  Leaving Before the Rains Come begins with the dreadful first years of the American financial crisis when Fuller's delicate balance--between American pragmatism and African fatalism, the linchpin of her unorthodox marriage--irrevocably fails. Recalling her unusual courtship in Zambia--elephant attacks on the first date, sick with malaria on the wedding day--Fuller struggles to understand her younger self as she overcomes her current misfortunes.


     Fuller soon realizes that what is missing from her life is something that was always there: the brash and uncompromising ways of her father, the man who warned his daughter that "the problem with most people is that they want to be alive for as long as possible without having any idea whatsoever how to live." Fuller's father--"Tim Fuller of No Fixed Abode" as he first introduced himself to his future wife--was a man who regretted nothing and wanted less, even after fighting harder and losing more than most men could bear. 


     Leaving Before the Rains Come showcases Fuller at the peak of her abilities, threading panoramic vistas with her deepest revelations as a fully grown woman and mother. Fuller reveals how--after spending a lifetime fearfully waiting for someone to show up and save her--she discovered that, in the end, we all simply have to save ourselves.


     An unforgettable book,
Leaving Before the Rains Come is a story of sorrow grounded in the tragic grandeur and rueful joy only to be found in Fuller's Africa. - Goodreads


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This book is about many things. It's about the end of a marriage, the continuation of love, finding the self you somehow misplaced, leaving your home continent, and finding a new one. It's about courage, strength and a little bit of crazy. But mostly it's about the ways in which we change, yet always stay the same.

Alexandra Fuller writes much the same way as she lives - in many directions all at once. She grew up in three southern African countries, though this book mainly contains her memories of Zambia and her later experiences of re-locating to Wyoming to create a new life with her American husband and their three children.

This is Fuller's most recent book in a series of memoirs chronicling her life - none of which I've read. So I went into this without any context or idea what to expect (either in terms of content or writing style). Perhaps because of this, there were points where I felt a bit confused because she talked about people in her life and certain events of the past without much in the way of introduction or explanation. I slowly figured out who everyone was, and I think I got most of what was happening, but I found myself wishing I'd read her other books first.

That said, even with the odd bit of confusion, I enjoyed this book. It's different from the other memoirs I've read recently, with their strict chronology or careful topical divisions. This one - well, it went everywhere all at once. But as I read about the chaotic upbringing Fuller had, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

She was the daughter of ex-pats who had abandoned the British Isles in favour of Africa, with all its dangers and difficulties. Fuller grew up in a home that had no shortage of love, adventure and excitement, but lacked any sense of lasting security. Three of her four siblings died (from what I gather at a young age, though only one death is described, the others are mentioned only in passing), and her parents constantly had to move either because of political unrest or financial necessity. She talks about how, looking back, she sees how financially strapped her parents often were, though she didn't always know it as a child. She also talks a lot about the many dangers inherent in her childhood homes - charging elephants, snakes, crocodiles, malaria, drunken soldiers, injuries... there was no shortage of risk.

Her parents quickly became my favourite characters. Yes, they're a bit crazy (certifiably in her mother's case), but they also live life in a way I've never been able to, a way I admire. They chose a life on the edge of danger because it was real, no-holds-barred living. They accepted the sacrifices it came with and, most of all, they kept their ability to be ridiculous right into middle age. They sound like the type of people you want around for a party or a crisis. Though this may make for a difficult environment to grow up in, from the outside looking in, it also seems admirably courageous. Here's a demonstrative excerpt:
[...] I think my parents made major decisions drunk to avoid the possibility of ever doing anything either frugal or boring, which, of all the possible sins, are the only two the consider truly deadly. "Boring is number one," Dad says. "Absolutely the worst possible sin." All other offenses my parents excuse as merely venial. "Well, he who is without sin is likely to be a bit bloody boring, so there is that hitch," Dad argues. - p. 26
And who, may I asks, really enjoys being bloody boring?

Growing up this way, in combination with a genetic predisposition to craziness and over-indulgence in alcohol (she writes of her mother's mental absences and how she has, here and there, "lost her mind"), had dual effects on Fuller. On the one hand it made her adventurous and bold, able to function in extreme circumstances. But on the other hand it left her ill-equipped for the day-to-day challenges of both marriage and adulthood, though she craved both financial and emotional stability and was determined to provide them for her children.

I am left feeling that this book will take some time for me to digest and settle into a lasting impression of. I'm considering reading some of her previous memoirs to provide me with more context and information than this one did. There were points where it reminded me (for both good and not-so-good) of Eat, Pray, Love - this is also a story of self-discovery and how geography can thoroughly change and shake up aspects of our inner selves. There were also, like in EPL, parts where I sympathized with the author and parts where I wanted to smack her upside the head. Much the same way I feel about everyone in my life at times - including (or especially) myself.

The story isn't either happy or sad. Like life, it contains generous measures of both. It's messy, at times confusing and yet, hilarious.
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**Thanks to Random House Canada for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Book Title: Leaving Before the Rains Come
Author: Alexandra Fuller
Series: No
Edition: Hardback
Published By: Random House Canada
Released: January 20, 2015
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Self-Discovery, Family
Pages: 258
Date Read: January 8-16, 2015
Rating: 6/10

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