Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
I read Alexandra Fuller’s first book Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight when it was published in 2002 – and like most readers, I loved this memoir of a girl growing up in an eccentric family (to say the very least) in what was once Rhodesia.
Now 13 years later, with a couple of books in between, is Leaving Before the Rains Come - another stunner.
We find Alexandra Fuller now in her mid-40’s, married for 20 years – and finding that she has lost herself. It takes a great deal of work to establish, and maintain, a marriage that allows each of the partners to grow together instead of apart. And, sometimes no matter how much effort, it is just not possible.
Alexandra Fuller grew up in a big world – the wide open spaces of south east Africa, an intense world in every way. Marrying an American who seemed adventurous, but also stable, at first appeared to be a good thing. But the adjustment to marriage and the comparatively mundane existence in the United States – even in Wyoming – just didn’t work, no matter how much she wanted it to. Three children and twenty years later Alexandra Fuller knew she had to leave.
How many marriages do we know of – perhaps our own parents – perhaps even our own that should have ended? Marriages where couples stayed together for “the sake of the children”. Way too many perhaps – what child would not be far better off with a happy mother making her own life instead of someone unfulfilled and just putting in the time?
The story of this marriage and it’s demise is woven into the life Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller lived with her family in Africa – with her parents and sister still there, while Alexandra makes a new life for herself in America, with many visits home.
There was a time when Alexandra Fuller fully believed that she belonged to Africa, “Someone had planted me in this soil and I had taken fierce hold.” Africa is so sensual – the sounds, the constant noise of insects and birds, the scent of the vegetation, the flowers, the compost – the intensity of the sun, and the rains, the ever present danger of snakes, scorpions. In Africa one is ever watchful for some sort of danger - no wonder most any place else in the world seems boring. If you have ever thought it arduous to give birth and look after an infant, just read this book and you’ll know how privileged most of us are in North America.
After many years of living in the United States, Alexandra finally had to admit that she no longer felt African – she had become an American citizen. But home, the place she feels most at home, is still Africa. Though even in America it is “the same sky over us all”.
This book, for me, is ultimately about identity – how we see ourselves and our place in the world as we grow older. Alexandra Fuller writes so beautifully – despite the fact that she had written several rejected novels before turning to memoir and achieving such literary success.
Leaving Before the Rains Come is as much about Alexandra’s parents as it is about herself. Her father “Tim Fuller of No Fixed Abode” is a man she adores, and her mother, a woman with her own demons, has such a zest for life no one could resist her for a moment. Her mother’s advice “save your tears for the big stuff”.
As her marriage unravels Alexandra asks her father for advice, his answer about marital success is a simple one “marry the right chap to begin with I suppose”. That says it all, really. Those who married the “right chap” as Alexandra’s parents did, are able to stay together through both joy and loss, and everything else that life throws at us, while others may not be so lucky.
Doing some family research about her parents and grandparents Alexandra discovers that her own parents eccentricities almost pale in comparison to their ancestors. As her mother so aptly says about her own life “better to err on the side of insanity that total boredom, isn’t it”. Though real insanity, of course, is not an easy thing, as Alexandra knows from her mother’s periods of madness.
We are all molded to some extent by our parents and our family – like it or not. But we do have some self control and the free will to prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes – or being victim to our past. Knowing when you’ve made a mistake and having the self-awareness to recognize it, and then the courage to make a change is a big thing – it is what mature adults can do. There may be consequences – perhaps hurt and damage to yourself and others - but life can be long – and even if it is short why live in unhappiness. Unhappy parents have unhappy children – what kind of an inheritance is that?
Leaving Before the Rains Come ends – but of course the story does not, and I am sure we’ll read more about the life of Alexandra Fuller as she moves into the future with a new partner and further reflections on a life well lived.