Today I’m delighted to welcome Carol Cooper to tell us the story behind her wonderful new novel, The Girls from Alexandria, set in – you guessed it – Alexandria!
Just to be clear, this is the original Alexandria in Egypt, not any of the towns by the same name in the USA or elsewhere – named for its founder, Alexander the Great, once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and now the largest city on the Mediterranean. It has long been a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures, which Carol vividly describes in her novel.
That Carol is a past master at creating a sense of place is evidenced by her two previous novels, both set in London, One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever.
I’m a Londoner myself, despite living in the Cotswolds for the last thirty years, and those two novels vividly evoke my native city. I was therefore looking forward to reading her latest novel celebrating the exotic setting of her childhood, and I snapped up the ebook as soon as it came out and really enjoyed it. The paperback and audio are also now available – find out how to order at the end of the interview. Now, let’s meet Carol…
Hello, Carol, and welcome! Can you please start off by telling us a little more about the setting of your new novel.
The Girls from Alexandria is set mostly in Alexandria – Egypt, that is, and not, as some Americans think, the one in Virginia. The novel has two timelines, and the present-day action mostly takes place in London.
Please briefly describe what kind of book it is.
It’s a hybrid between historical fiction and a modern mystery. Seventy-year-old Nadia’s brain is failing and she’s going to end up in a care home unless she can find her sister Simone who’s her last remaining relative. But Simone went missing from the family home in Alexandria 50 years ago. And all Nadia has to go on is a few old postcards and her own jumbled memories of Egypt.
What makes this place such a great setting for your story?
As I knew it, Alexandria was a vibrant hub of commerce, culture, and leisure. Many different nationalities and ethnicities contributed to its success, and all lived side by side in a peaceful patchwork. The city itself is very atmospheric. On the Corniche (the waterfront promenade), little boys sell necklaces threaded with jasmine and vendors grill corn over a makeshift charcoal grill, while a gentle breeze off the Mediterranean gives Alex a near-perfect climate – unlike Cairo which, as any Alexandrians will tell you, is inferior in every way.
Yet all was not well in the 1950s, and the era that was so comfortable for many was on the cliff edge of change.
All this made it the perfect backdrop for Nadia’s story.
What is your relationship with Alexandria, and how much of your life have you spent there?
I was born in London and taken to Alexandria at the age of eight months. I lived there non-stop for eight years, then on and off for another couple of years. While it’s not a huge slice of my life, those are formative years. My mother’s side of the family is Arab. Our ancestors were Syrian and Lebanese, and came to settle in Alexandria about 100 years before I was born.
Egypt was a safe haven for many, so that was a common scenario in the Middle East. However, although we were Egyptian, some still considered us outsiders. It was an easy decision to give my principal character Nadia and her family exactly the same ethnicity, and for Nadia to search for the meaning of ‘home’ as much as for her missing sister.
What is special about the people native to Alexandria?
People from Alexandria may actually come from all over the world, so they might be, or have been at some point, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, French, British, Armenian, Turkish, Russian, Swiss, or any number of other nationalities, as well as a mix of creeds.
An Alexandrian is a citizen of the world, and everyone we knew spoke at least three languages.
You were hardly Alexandrian if you didn’t leap from one language to another, mid-sentence or not, use your hands to help make your point, and talk so softly that you could be heard in Peru.
What are your top tips for any readers planning to travel to the setting of your book?
Unfortunately many magnificent period buildings, including ornate French and Italianate splendours, are no more. To house a booming population, new blocks have sprouted everywhere, without regard for heritage or planning regulations. Some of them collapse into rubble just as quickly.
But there’s still a lot to see. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a marvel. Completed in 2002, it is both a tribute to the old Library of Alexandria, and a spectacular new centre for culture and study.
The catacombs at Kom el Shoqafa are definitely worth a visit. These are tombs in Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. Some statues are Egyptian but have Roman clothes and hairdos. I like to think this embodies the city’s cosmopolitan spirit.
Pompey’s Pillar is also a must. It was really built to honour Roman emperor Diocletian, but legend has it that someone misread the inscription at the base of the pillar.
Anyone travelling to Egypt should stick to the tourist trail or they could get into serious trouble with the police. Visitors should also be careful what they take photos of – no government buildings, for a start.
However you can still walk along the Corniche and take in the view. At sunset, the sky turns every shade of pink, purple, and red. As the last slice of the sun sinks, you might catch sight of a green flash. That’s when you can make a wish, but be quick. There’s only a brief moment before the sun drops like a rock into the sea and the sky turns dark.
Are there any other authors’ books with the same setting that you’d like to recommend?
Anyone interested in Alexandria may already know Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I can also recommend translations of Neguib Mahfouz’s novel Hotel Miramar, and Robert Solé’s Hôtel Mahrajane and The Alexandria Semaphore. Finally there’s a special place in my heart for André Aciman’s vivid memoir Out of Egypt.
Carol, thank you so much for taking us to Alexandria today – now let’s share an extract of your new novel.
EXTRACT from The Girls from Alexandria
Alexandria, June 1953
Zouzou strolled up and down, chewing Chiclets and wiggling her bottom in yet another swimsuit. She was part Italian, part Egyptian, and maybe part French or Austrian. In Alex, it was normal for everyone to be part something, with all the parts jumbled up.
‘Don’t stare,’ Simone hissed.
It was impossible not to stare. Zouzou was unbelievably old, maybe thirty, and she chewed gum with a wide painted mouth like the film stars at the Rialto.
When I next looked up from my sandcastle, Mother was deep in conversation with her sisters and Father had nodded off. Simone’s sketch pad was still under the parasol, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t by the water’s edge either. Blood drained from my face. In fact, it drained from my entire body.
I jumped up and bellowed, ‘Simone!’
Several boys splashed in the water nearby, fighting over an inflatable mattress. Simone was nowhere to be seen. I felt sick.
‘What is it, chérie?’ Mother asked.
‘Simone’s gone. Simone!’ I yelled again.
Mother was up, spinning her head around. ‘When did you last see her?’
‘I don’t know. Just a moment ago. Simone!’ It was when Zouzou went by, wasn’t it? My heart was beating all over the place except, it seemed, in the one spot where it was meant to beat.
‘There’s a shaweesh up on the Corniche,’ Mother told Father. ‘We should ask him.’
Yes, I thought. A policeman might be able to find a missing girl. Unless she’d already drowned.
Father rushed off to find the shaweesh while Abdou hitched up his long galabeyya so he could race up and down the sand in search of Simone. I silently promised I would give St Anthony twenty piasters if we found my sister.
TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT CAROL COOPER
Visit Carol’s website at www.drcarolcooper.com.
I also recommend following her blog, www.pillsandpillowtalk.com, which is always well-written and entertaining, whether writing about issues of the day, medical matters (she is also a medical doctor and medical ournalist), or about her books and writing life. Her latest post is “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Alexandria“.
TO ORDER THE GIRLS FROM ALEXANDRIA
The Girls from Alexandria is now available in ebook, paperback, audiobook download for Audible, and audio CDs.
- Audiobook download (for Audible):
- Audio CDs:
Lucienne Boyce takes us from 18th century England to a mythical country far away in To the Fair Land
PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:
- To Fiji with B M Allsopp
- To the Caribbean with Helen Hollick
- To Europe and Roma Nova with Alison Morton
Or take a trip to the Cotswolds any time, through the pages of my own novels and novelettes!