DON'T LET'S GO TO THE DOGS TONIGHT: AN AFRICAN CHILDHOOD by Alexandra Fuller
Reviewed by Nordeen Morello, Book’em.....take our poll!
(April 28, 2005) Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, writes of her beloved land: "The incongruous, lawless, joyful, violent, upside down, illogical certainty of Africa." These same words could easily describe her childhood in Central Africa which this memoir details.
The Fullers are white British expatriates living in civil war torn Rhodesia (later, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi) in the 1970's and 1980's. Theirs is a world of struggle, hardship and poverty as they try their hand at tobacco farming, cattle raising and existence in a hostile land and climate. But they "have breeding. which is better than having money." By the age of five, 'Bobo' (Alexandra) and sister Vanessa are taught to strip, clean and load the semi-automatic rifles their parents sleep with at night. They are also taught the opera Carmen and the plays of Shakespeare by these same parents. While there never seems to be enough to eat, there are African servants, stables, boarding schools and the country club. There is also the haunting knowledge that Bo and Van are the only two offspring of five to have survived.
Overall, this is a story of a hand-to-mouth existence in a fog-like state of drink and smoke, punctuated by acts of horror and violence, against a backdrop of flea-infested dogs and belief in white supremacy. It is told through the eyes of a loving and accepting child.
One of our members expressed that while much of the story itself is depressing, there was a charm to the childlike "light" view of this world by the author. Both Fuller parents are "self absorbed," "weird," and "negligent," yet emerge in romanticized form through their daughter's eyes. The word "dysfunctional" emerged in our reactions. Mother Nicola appears as part Florence Nightingale, part animal "whisperer." Life's tragedies, smaller daily ones as well as larger life changing ones, are ascribed to "bad luck."
Fuller is a gifted writer who will certainly evoke for the reader the "sounds and smells of Africa" which enchant her and fill this memoir. The group acknowledged that this story in the hands of a less talented scribe would probably not be worth reading. Overall, Book-'Em enjoyed Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight. One of the few dissenters commented, "I didn't enjoy reading it but I thought it was worth reading."
Our criticism centered on the repetitious nature of the book ("I kept waiting for something to happen but it was just more of the same.") and the slightly disjointed telling of her chronicle. The political and historical background of these times and countries are not well laid out if you, like most of our group, are unfamiliar with Africa's story. One member expressed anger at the unacknowledged racist attitudes of the Fullers. In fairness, we see the glimmer of Bobo's awakening when "at almost 14 I was first formally invited into the home of a black African to share food." Most members of Book-'Em were as accepting and forgiving of this "child's-eye" view of life as the author is of her parents and her experience in Africa.
Our evening's discussion consisted of individual reactions to the book and to the various Fuller personalities. Who was the glue of the family? What did you think of the parents' relationship? Why did they stay in Africa? We also commented on the strife between tribal factions and geopolitical instabilities, which continue to plague African countries today.
Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight was a bit harder "fit" for book club discussion than other memoirs have been. With some background research on the country, a curiosity about the African land and culture, and an appreciation for accomplished writing, it could work for yours.
FROM THE EDITORS: Find reviews contributed by other local book clubs at: www.larchmontgazette.com. We'd love to hear from other Larchmont book clubs and readers; email us at email@example.com.