Melissa Maerz
August 24, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

Current Status
In Season
Alexandra Fuller
Random House

We gave it a B

This is a memoir that a mother could love — which is good, since the author’s own mum hated her last one. In her acclaimed 2001 debut, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller offered such a mercilessly candid, acidly funny look at growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the 1970s that the elder Ms. Fuller renamed it ”the Awful Book.” So it makes sense that this follow-up, which functions as both a prequel and a sequel, feels like an apology for painting her parents as moonshine-drinking, Uzi-toting, Happy Valley-era British expats who were ”prepared to die, you see, to keep one country white-run.”

In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa (as her mother calls herself) emerges as a more sympathetic heroine, a bon vivant who wears large, expensive hats and hollers show tunes at full volume. She regales her kids with adventures from her childhood in Kenya, where her best friend was a monkey named Stephen Foster; her adulthood in war-torn Rhodesia, where she lost three of her children; and her twilight years in Zambia, where she finds peace running a banana and fish farm with her husband.

Fans of Don’t Let’s Go might be disappointed to find many of the same stories recounted with less depth here — Nicola’s wrenching mental breakdown warrants only a few pages — but Cocktail really shines when it showcases the matriarch’s wicked sense of humor. After the Fuller kids survive a mortar attack in the town of Umtali, Nicola buys them T-shirts that say ”Come to Umtali and Get Bombed!” ”Isn’t it funny?” she asks them. And it is funny — just like this book itself — in a way that’s both hilarious and tragic. B

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