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Out of Africa, Into Loneliness: Michele Magwood Talks to Alexandra Fuller About Her Latest Memoir Leaving Before The Rains Come

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Leaving Before The Rains ComeLeaving Before The Rains Come
Alexandra Fuller (Harvill Secker)

“People have been calling this a divorce memoir, which I really hate,” says Alexandra Fuller. Her voice from Wyoming is sleepy and muffled. I suspect she is still plumped under her comforter on this early winter morning. “I think it’s much more a love story. An impossible love story for another human being but also for a land and family. It’s a violent attachment that’s never left me.”

Leaving Before The Rains Come is Fuller’s fourth memoir, but it picks up from her first, the now classic book Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight, written, she says “in a tsunami of homesickness”. It ended with her leaving Zambia for a new life in America with her husband Charlie Ross. And what a man was Charlie Ross, an American who ran rafting operations on the Zambezi, an adventurer who had walked with gorillas in Rwanda, climbed Yosemite and Kilimanjaro, whitewater rafted in Siberia. He had “an uncompromising Romanesque profile like something off an ancient coin”. All of 22, Bobo – brought up in an eccentric, addled family – was smitten. “I believed that if I moored myself to Charlie, I would know tranquility interspersed by organised adventure. He would stay in Zambia because he loved the romance of it. I could remain here, safely. Our lives would be the ‘three rifles, supplies for a month, and Mozart’ of Out of Africa without the plane crashes, syphilis and Danish accent.”

But when Charlie’s business started faltering, and Alexandra fell desperately ill with malaria while nursing her first baby, they decided to move to the US. “Our marriage wasn’t going to be about nearly dying, and violent beauty, and unpredictability … our lives would be good and ordinary and sane.”

Fuller went on to write other books: the searing Scribbling the Cat – Travels with an African Soldier; a biography of the redneck oil rig man Colton Bryant; and a book about her mother, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. But the farm in Zambia remained her True North, her emotional lodestone, and back in Jackson Hole, USA, Charlie had morphed into a conservative, careworn real estate agent. Instead of slipping into a safe and sane life, Fuller chafed. “I hated it, I’ve never felt so lonely. It was a complete smothering. What was impossible for me was I had left my family and you know, I’m wildly in love with them. There’s so much we don’t agree on – politically especially – but we disagree in such a loud exuberant way, and we’re bonded by what we’ve endured.”

Two more children followed and Fuller was ravelled up in the tedious rhythm of parenthood, the loop of laundry and meals and school runs. She and Charlie began to talk past each other. It was, she says, like being in solitary confinement. Early in the book we hear the dread notes of this discord when she puts the phone down from Zambia, a call full of crocodiles and chaos. She seldom told Charlie about these calls, she says, because “the events we Fullers found hilarious or entertaining did not always amuse my American husband. He was a gallant one-man intervention wanting to save us from our recklessness”.

When the financial crisis of the late 2000s hit, they started going bankrupt. Fuller, who could strip an uzi and change a car tyre before she was 10, was financially illiterate. She had no credit card in her name, had never seen a royalty cheque, could not understand how their sudden penury had happened. After 20-odd years the relationship fragmented.

This is not a book written for catharsis or therapy or score-settling, it is a sedulous, scraping “journey to my interior” with universal resonance. As always the pages sing with her fine description, her almost forensic tenderness. “The rain let up, and now there was the thick contentment that comes after a storm, everything tranquillised and heavy, the world freighted with dripping vegetation and buzzing with insects.”

As you read this, Fuller will be back in Zambia, visiting under the tree of forgetfulness and gathering, one hopes, fresh material for a new book. Having mined her parents’ lives, she has her sights set on her sister Vanessa, who still lives there. “It’s the one relationship I haven’t explored. We’ve only found each other now and we’re heading towards 50.” I, for one, can’t wait.

Follow Michele on Twitter @michelemagwood

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