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Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

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These children cheer when they hear the “stomach-echoing thump” of a mine exploding in the hills, because it tells them “either an African or a baboon has been wounded or killed”. The family handle their mother's alcoholism and insanity with the same stoicism they handle any other misfortune, though they do occasionally compare themselves to families with normal mothers, clean swimming pools, home baking and children free of worms.

But they all saw death in many different ways, some deaths being too horrible to have been inscribed into their minds.

These are difficult things to say – get the tone wrong and you will offend almost everyone – but Fuller’s gaze is equally astonishing when she directs it at the bodies of the white people around her. We suddenly jump ahead to her wedding, which wouldn't be horrible, except that suddenly 10 years (or something) have passed since the last event she recounts and since none of the memoir is written from an adult perspective, this relatively short portion is jarring. The verges of the road have been mown to reveal neat, upright barbed-wire fencing and fields of army-straight tobacco. Unflinching, beautifully written, and, at times, extremely funny, Alexandra Fuller's book is one of the most honest memoirs of a childhood to be found in contemporary writing. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate.

I did however, feel that she should have written about how she came to see how racist her family was and how she isn't racist (or is she still? I loved the use of language, the strung-together adjectives and the powerful descriptions of the essence of Africa - the sheer enormity of the land, the harsh, unforgiving climate, the beauty that overwhelms the senses every single day. When they stop a journey at a fancy hotels, the opulence is unfamiliar: "the chairs were swallowingly soft".

When they drive into town they go past Africans “whose hatred reflects like sun in a mirror into our faces, impossible to ignore”.

Unsentimental and unflinching, but always enchanting, it is the story of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time. This story is told entirely in the voice of whatever age Bobo is at the time - mainly a child - and as a child, she has no other life experience to compare with her own. It's a very sensual book, her sharp prose conjuring up the sights and smells of the African countryside so vividly that I actually missed it when the book was over. This British family was always in hostile, desolate environments, moving from Rhodesia to Zambia and Malawi.She nurtured her daughters in other ways: She taught them, by example, to be resilient and self-sufficient, to have strong wills and strong opinions, and to embrace life wholeheartedly, despite and because of difficult circumstances.

And then when the author gets married, on the way to the ceremony, sitting in the car with her father who is now driving and has just handed her a gin and tonic to combat both nerves and a persistent case of malaria, her father says, "You're not bad looking once they scrape the mud off you and put you in a dress. There is fun, but also a lack of overt love, particularly touching (the many dogs are far luckier in this respect!Their frequent moves and their physical and racial isolation force the family to learn to accommodate each other’s flaws/quirks, and they become very tight-knit because of (not in spite of) their individual eccentricities. Here it is so hot that “the flamboyant tree outside cracks to itself, as if already anticipating how it will feel to be on fire”. The mosquito coils, the baobab trees, the explosion of day birds, the greasy fish stews over rice, the smells of black tea, cut tobacco, fresh fire, old sweat, young grass. And yet, if she falls or hurts herself, her nanny “lets me put my hand down her shirt on to her breast and I can suck my thumb and feel how soft she is”.

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