‘Leaving Before the Rains Come’: the latest chapter in a life chaotically lived
Memoirist Alexandra Fuller’s latest book is the work of a writer finding real wisdom, as she discovers that her calamitous upbringing gives her little in the way of coping skills when her marriage falls apart.
Seattle Times assistant features editor
AUTHOR APPEARANCE Alexandra Fuller
The author of “Leaving Before the Rains Come” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave.; free (spl.org).
‘Leaving Before the Rains Come’
Penguin Press, $26.95
It’s rare that a life can bear more than one, let alone three, memoirs, but such is the power of Alexandra Fuller’s story — and her way of telling it.
In her first book, 2001’s “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” Fuller wrote of her bruisingly eccentric upbringing in Africa, in the care of (or sometimes at the hands of) boozy British expat parents. It is a charming, electric and touching book. As is her latest, “Leaving Before the Rains Come,” which tells the story of her 19-year marriage.
In her early 20s she meets and falls for Charlie Ross, a dashing American rafting guide living in Zambia. Early on, their courtship is an amorous adventure, but after the first flushes of romance (about which Fuller is rather unsentimental), the more thoroughgoing nature of the union settles in.
“He viewed me as a wild version of himself, a Westerner in the raw,” she writes. “But now that he had married me, and I was out of my natural habitat, my plumage was less shiny, my skills less useful, my constant noise less charming. Instead of looking like a survivor of a tough, wondrous life, I looked like a damaged and broken survivor of sordid, violent, and undisciplined excess.”
Across two decades, a move to Wyoming, three children, several books by Fuller and eventual financial calamities, the warp and weft of their life together frays and eventually unravels. Fuller frets, flails and strays as the relationship founders.
“Charlie and I had let the sun set on our anger too many nights, too many months, too many years in a row,” she realizes. “We had brought each other our defenses, not our vulnerabilities; we had attacked one another with our strengths instead of shoring one another up with them; we had allowed old, unrelated wounds to become the battle scars of our marriage. We had been so careless, so arrogant, so heartless, always assuming there would be another day, another chance, another way to fix ourselves, to forgive one another, to see and be seen.”
To understand her situation, Fuller invokes her family history, contending with her fraught genealogical inheritance, including a paternal grandmother who drank herself mad amid the swells of the British aristocracy. “Throat cancer is what finally got her,” recounts Fuller, “the flagons of gin she drank every day accompanied by a perpetual ribbon of cigarettes.”
She finds insight, if not comfort.
“It is the perpetual tragedy of all families: each of us believe our congenital pathologies and singular pains end with us,” she notes. They don’t, of course, Moreover, her mistakes — her parents’ mistakes, her parents’ parents’ mistakes — are not momentary and finite, but a lineage, skeins of dysfunction running down through generations.
Fuller’s intimacy with language ripples off the page. And unlike many memoirs, which often strain for poignancy, the book’s insights are woven in naturally, with the vividness of genuine realizations.
For those who weather difficult childhoods — and Fuller’s was difficult, if also intermittently magical — it’s tempting to view life as a long project of exorcising the effects of those formative days. Her upbringing — so dramatic, so aberrant — can seem both an affliction and a windfall. And what she seems to arrive at fully is that the uneasy suspension of those two understandings is not what one needs to reconcile in order to get on with life, but rather it is life.
Moreover, the yearning for security that brought her to Charlie is a fruitless calling — acutely demonstrated by a harrowing accident late in the book.
“Leaving Before the Rain Comes” is the work of a writer finding real wisdom. Fuller gives herself over, in a more placid and thorough way than she did in her fevered youth, to the idea that “there is no way to order chaos. It’s the fundamental theory at the beginning and end of everything; it’s the ultimate law of nature. There’s no way to win against unpredictability, to suit up completely against accidents.”
Brian Thomas Gallagher: email@example.com