If it’s not all right, it’s not the end

Review: Vivien Horler

Travel Light, Move Fast, by Alexandra Fuller (Serpent’s Tail)

Alexandra Fuller and her mother, Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, are en route from Budapest to Lusaka when they bump into an old friend at OR Tambo Airport.

It has not been an ordinary journey – father Tim Fuller became mortally ill while on holiday with Nicola in Budapest, and days before his death Fuller flew from Wyoming to be with them.

So there they are, Nicola and Fuller, known to the family as Bobo, at Joburg airport. Bobo’s carry-on luggage includes a small cardboard box marked: “Human remains. Handle with care. This way up.”

The friend, expecting Tim to be there somewhere – as indeed he is – looks around for him. Says Nicola: “I’m afraid Tim’s on Bobo’s hip.” She pauses and adds: “You remember my daughter Bobo? No, of course not. She wasn’t middle aged when you last saw her.”

The friend’s eyes swivel to Bobo’s box and then widen. Fuller writes: “I imagine it’s fair to say that however shocking the change I’d undergone since Harriet had last seen me, it was nowhere near as shocking the change Dad had undergone since she’d last seen him.”

This is a perfect example of Fuller’s writing, articulate, engaging and mordantly funny. It also tells you something about Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, a woman of her place and time, imperious, brave and putting a good light on things.

Tim was British, but Nicola grew up in Central Africa, moving from Kenya to what was Rhodesia and then, after the advent of Robert Mugabe, to Zambia. South Africa was often a way station, but not one Nicola was particularly fond of.

“I love the airport, but I don’t love South Africa. The Afrikaners took it too far, the blacks are bolshie, and you can’t blame them; I find it very creepy, all of it. Just look at that Oscar Pistorius.”

This is not the first time Fuller has mined her family’s history to make a book. The one we all remember was the remarkable Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, about Fuller’s somewhat feral childhood during the Rhodesian war. Others were Leaving Before the Rains Come, Scribbling the Cat and Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. Perhaps these were not as good as the first, but always readable..

Then there was The Legend of Colton H Bryant, the brilliantly told story of a young American oil worker who dies in an oilfield accident.

In Travel Light, Move Fast – one of her father’s favourite expressions – Fuller tells the story of her father’s last days in the Budapest hospital and their subsequent return to Zambia. In the course of the narrative, she produces a portrait of a marriage and of two apparently extraordinary people. Fuller and her sister Vanessa, as well as their three dead siblings, family retainers, an air steward called Kitty-short-for-Kenneth and a dozen dogs, have bit parts in the narrative.

Woven through it are the stories of Nicola and Tim Fuller of Central Africa, of travel and drink and hilarity and loss. The Fullers have the blood of empire in their veins and believe in bracing up. When Bobo and Nicola get home to the farm in Zambia, and Bobo is in tears, Nicola tells her: “It’s all right, Bobo. It’s sad. It’s very, very sad. But it doesn’t help to go on and on about it.”

Losing a beloved father is hard. But there are worse losses, one of which Fuller has to confront. Something Tim told her helps: you can survive more than you would believe, more than you want. “Hold on Chookies – it’ll be all right in the end.”

And he’d add: “If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”


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