5. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Published in 2001. This Edition: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003.

Winner of the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, 2002.

Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize, 2002.

“My God, I am the wrong colour. The way I am burned by the sun, scorched by stinging sand, prickled by heat. The way my skin erupts in miniature volcanoes of protest in the presence of tsetse flies, mosquitoes, ticks. The way I stand out against the khaki bush like a large marshmallow to a gook with a gun. White. African. White-African.

“But what are you?” I am asked over and over again.

“Where are you from originally?” “

How does one adequately, or aptly, summarize the telling of someone’s life by their own voice—especially when their life continues to be a work in progress?

This is the living life story of Alexandra ‘Bobo’ Fuller, her family, her country, herself, growing up in it, learning to survive, respect and fear it, and understanding her own love for her Africa.

Alexandra’s life in Africa began when she was two, transported from mild-pastured England by her parents along with older, improbably beautiful sister Vanessa. She learns, early, what it is like to straddle identities, as surely as she learns how to wield a shotgun, take a careful pee, rustle and herd cattle, defend herself against obvious and unspoken dangers.

Alexandra Fuller is the author of this uncompromising, tough narrative, but it is Bobo’s story we learn, Bobo’s thoughts, her vulnerability and her resolute toughness swaddled together beneath the blistering heat of Rhodesian, Zambian, Malawian, Zimbabwean sun.

Fuller turns a beautiful phrase, somewhat unexpectedly. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight seems, at the outset, like a tale suited for economy, for spare, flinty syllables and arid landscapes. There is no surfeit of that, but hard images are rendered, in Fuller’s prose, with touching elegance, with the generous, sensual touch of an artist’s brush, the sharpness of cartographic vision.

This novel is eminently two things before most others. It is the story of a remarkable childhood, adolescence, coming of age: a bildungsroman that would lose no sheen standing next to Great Expectations on a bookshelf. It feels like nothing so much as a sepia-toned movie, relentlessly and unforgivingly shot at the regular pace of growing up, but without the possibility of retakes. Lions, tigers and bears—oh my, indeed.

It is also the book most writers feel uncomfortably in their stomachs, and the one most of them never write. This is the origin story of the story-originator… the thousand and one family secrets in varying degrees of cleanliness. Here, amassed, told unflinchingly, are the Fuller family’s long list of bêtes noires. There is sexual harrassment, unabashed racism, weakness for drink, isolation and an aversion to demonstrative love. There is death, sorrow, and guilt that eats itself up in a neverending cycle… guilt linked to death, which, from the way Fuller recounts it, seems easily like it might just be the worst goddamned kind.

Black and white photographs of Bobo, her family, their farm, and other key figures in her life intersperse the chapters, often heralding their beginnings, on occasion tucked in unexpectedly between the painful, or hilarious recollections, and there is hilarity aplenty in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Certain sections made me put the book down to laugh, uproariously, shrieking to the ceiling.

We Trinidadians like to say that laugh and cry does live in the same house. Perhaps there is a similar saying in Rhodesia-now-Zimbabwe, or perhaps Fuller knows what the best writers know… that in sharing one’s life in print, it is hard to sift sadness out of mirth, glee out of gloom.

As with all the books I love best, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is not an easy read. Would it be so memorable if it were? It might… for all the laughter and the tears contained in Fuller’s African house.

“In those days, I explored the ranch as if I were capable of owning its secrets, as if its heat and isolation and hostility were embraceable friends. I covered the hot, sharp, thorny ground of the ranch on horseback, foot and bicycle, ignorant of her secrets and fearless of her taboos, as if these ancient, native constraints did not apply to me.”