Fans of Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight will enjoy this memoir of growing up in Rhodesia.
“Lauren, my youngest sister, was killed in a car accident on a straight and lonely road in Zambia in 1999.” After that opening line—whose adequate, but not especially lovely prose is representative of the rest of the book—Kann looks back to her childhood. Her mother was a “versatile, complicated drunk,” her father died in an accident that local gossips described as a suicide, and her stepmother, trying to bring up five children on little money, was both strong and needy, beautiful and manipulative. Kann managed to escape after falling in love with a gentle, sensitive American, Mickey, whom she followed to Manhattan and soon married. The couple eventually made their way to a suburban dreamland: three kids, sprawling house in Westport, Conn., pool men, gardeners. Kann filled her days with PTA meetings and carpool and “social obligations.” She kept up with her two sisters, who both lived in Africa. Kann was especially concerned about Lauren, whose husband was charming but emotionally abusive. Lauren whispered about her unhappiness whenever her sister phoned; the only bright spot in her life was her new baby, Luke. After Lauren’s fatal car crash, Kann rushed to Africa, spending many weeks caring for her young nephew. And then . . . well, not much, which is this memoir’s weakness. Kann has set us up for great emotional catharsis, for reckoning with one’s homeland, for confronting inner demons. What we get, instead, is a canned description of sorting through Lauren’s clothes, and a saccharine conversation on the trampoline with nephew Luke: “It’s hard for me to explain exactly how . . . special your mummy was. . . . She loved you so very much.”
Dysfunctional family, the mystique of colonial Africa, grief over a dead relative: This debut has a lot going for it, but never fully delivers.