A marriage of unequals

A review of 'Leaving Before the Rains Come,' Alexandra Fuller’s account of her unsteady arc from Zimbabwe to Wyoming

 

Leaving Before the Rains Come
Alexandra Fuller
258 pages,
hardcover: $26.95.
Penguin Press, 2015.

In Leaving Before the Rains Come, her fifth nonfiction book, Wyoming writer Alexandra Fuller traces the unsteady arc of her marriage, from its shaky foundation in southern Africa to its final unraveling in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Fuller’s many readers will recognize characters and events from her traumatic (and comic) childhood in war-torn British Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, which she wrote about in the bestselling Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. But although her new book covers some of the same terrain, this memoir unspools in a steadier, wiser voice. Fuller reflects on how her chaotic early years, rife with loss and disease, created a deep craving for stability, calm and safety, which she attempted to satisfy as an adult by marrying an American named Charlie Ross.

After she nearly dies of malaria in Zambia while caring for her newborn daughter, Fuller and her family move to the United States. There, in the shadow of the Tetons, she finds herself swept into American life, with its surfeit of security and predictability: “Americans were not expected to encounter unexpected, surprising hazards. … Mile markers along trails reminded us … how far it was back to the car.” Fuller marvels at those around her who take up outdoor activities just “for the adrenaline,” a sharp contrast to her life in Africa: “Most people I knew, myself included, had been saturated by enough of that hormone by early childhood to last a lifetime.”

But the differences that at first provide relief eventually drive a wedge between Fuller and her husband. “He saw the world in concrete terms, rationally, as if the place were solid and the systems … were dependable,” she writes. “I saw the world as something fluid; I expected irrationality and mild madness, and most of the time I did not think the gap between the two was important.” Fuller digs into both the long line of instability in her own extended family and the legacy of buried suffering in her husband’s.

When her marriage finally frays and she embarks on a solo life, she finds unexpected comfort in the wry humor and unflinching stoicism of her parents. “What I didn’t know (as a child) is that the assurances I needed couldn’t be had,” she writes. “I did not know that for the things that unhorse you, for the things that wreck you … there is no conventional guard.”