(Audio)Book Talk: LEAVING BEFORE THE RAINS COME by Alexandra Fuller

Audiobook read by the author
Penguin Press (January 2015), Hardcover (ISBN 1594205868 / 9781594205866)
Nonfiction: memoir, 272 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Recorded Books, Jan. 2015, ISBN 9781490654881, ASIN B00QVWQVSQ)
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book review LEAVING BEFORE THE RAINS COME Alexandra Fuller memoir

As a daughter of White colonists in southern Africa during a time when those colonies were at war for the independence of their native Black populations, Alexandra Fuller’s youth would have been unsettled enough by virtue of the historical period in which it occurred, but her unpredictable, fiercely independent-minded parents made it that much more so. When she married American Charlie Ross at the age of twenty-two, she thought she was choosing something stable and reliable—something much the opposite of what she’d known for most of her life. As it happened, she had traded one type of instability for another, and while she’d learned how to cope with the natural and cultural challenges of life on a Zambian farm, the challenges of maintaining a middle-class American life in the midst of an economic recession ultimately proved to be beyond her abilities.

The weather patterns of southern Africa, where the wet season can make travel impossible for weeks at a time, provide a title for Fuller’s memoir of marriage and divorce, Leaving Before the Rains Come. That phrase seems to be another way of saying “get out while you can,” and coupled with the way I’ve summarized this book in the previous paragraph, it occurs to me that I might be giving you an unsympathetic or shallow impression of the author. I don’t mean to. If Fuller’s divorce left her with a need to explore how the “African childhood” she wrote about in her 2001 memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight may have contributed to her eventual American divorce, I’d call that impulse the very opposite of “shallow.”

Why two people don’t stay married to each other can be at least as idiosyncratic as why they do; the reasons are rarely as uncomplicated or obvious as they may appear from the outside, and having been through divorce myself, I try not to judge the relationship decisions of anyone who has clearly and thoughtfully struggled with them. Fuller’s reflections on not just her own upbringing, but on that of both her parents, offer plenty of insights into the experiences and worldview she brought into her marriage, and why that worldview ultimately might not have meshed with that of the Philadelphia Main Line-via-Wyoming Ross.

Alexandra Fuller is a gifted storyteller, and Leaving Before the Rains Come is full of stories. Some are entertaining, some are shocking, some are eye-opening, and some are not especially flattering to anyone involved. The narrative meanders at times, but I trust that Fuller chose the smaller stories that mattered most to the larger one to her larger one…and I should note that the last quarter of the memoir, which deals directly with the end of Fuller’s marriage, does follow a more linear structure. I read this as an audiobook, narrated by the author herself, and she proves well up to the task. Leaving Before the Rains Come isn’t an easy read—divorce isn’t an easy subject—but it’s a moving, emotionally resonant one.

Rating: Book and audio, 3.75 of 5
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A child of the Rhodesian wars and daughter of two 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 finally confronts the tough questions about her past, about the American man she married, and about 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 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.
Excerpt:

“‘Big excitement this week,’ Mum says. ‘We got invited to a party in Lusaka. You know, those people with all the consonants in their names. Tiny blobs of caviar, well, trout eggs really, not sturgeon obviously, and scary amounts of vodka.’

“‘Scary?’

“‘’Yes, so by the time we were ready to leave the party, your father had already had far too much excitement. He climbed onto the roof of the pickup and refused to come down,’ Mum says.

“‘Then what?’ I ask.

“‘I had to drive off with him like that,” Mum says. “And you know what a terrible driver I am. Heaven only knows how we made it home. I was halfway to Makeni before it dawned on me that I might be driving on the wrong side of the road.”

“‘Dawned on you?’

“‘Well, Bobo, you know what drivers are these days. I thought they were hooting at me because they wanted me to go faster.’

“‘So?’

“‘I drove faster, of course,’ Mum says. ‘Dad was thumping on the roof but I assumed he was just singing the Hallelujah chorus or Tchaikovsky’s bells and cannons. How was I to know he wanted to come down? Oh, it was such a performance.’

“I shut my eyes and pictured the soft, hot world at the bottom of the farm, with the river lazily curling its way east to Mozambique, and my parents contributing to a general sense of easygoing mayhem in their inimitable way.

“It takes a kind of outrageous courage—recklessness even, I might have said once—to revel in the pattern of that much definite chaos. I had been raised in this way, and I had loved much of my early life and of course I loved my family, but at some point I had lost the mettle and the imagination to surrender to the promise of perpetual insecurity. Instead I chose to believe in the possibility of a predictable, chartable future and I had picked a life that I imagined would have certainties, safety nets, and assurances.

“What I did not know then is that the assurances I needed couldn’t be had. I did not know that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you, for the things that toy with your internal tide—against those things, there is no conventional guard.”

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