It’s a great pleasure today to be joining the blog tour for The Girls from Alexandria by Carol Cooper: published for kindle by Agora Books tomorrow (1st April), the paperback will follow on 29th April. My thanks to Peyton Stableford at Agora Books – always so lovely to deal with – for the invitation and support, and to the publishers for my advance reading ecopy (provided via netgalley).
I’m delighted to finally be reading a book from Carol – I’d really intended to read her earlier fiction, both Hampstead Fever and One Night at the Jacaranda, but the latest life crisis always made it impossible. Carol has been my guest before though – she joined me for an interview in 2016, and you can read it again here. It’s so good to see so many bloggers have signed up for the tour for this book – let’s take a closer look…
‘Memories are fragile when you are seventy years old. I can’t afford to lose any more of them, not when remembering the past might help with the here and now.’
Nadia needs help. Help getting out of her hospital bed. Help taking her pills. One thing she doesn’t need help with is remembering her sister. But she does need help finding her.
Alone and abandoned in a London hospital, 70-year-old Nadia is facing the rest of her life spent in a care home unless she can contact her sister Simone… who’s been missing for 50 years.
Despite being told she’s ‘confused’ and not quite understanding how wi-fi works, Nadia is determined to find Simone. So with only cryptic postcards and her own jumbled memories to go on, Nadia must race against her own fading faculties and find her sister before she herself is forgotten.
Set against the lush and glamorous backdrop of 20th century Alexandria, Carol Cooper’s The Girls from Alexandria is equal parts contemporary mystery and historical fiction: a re-coming of age story about family, identity, and homeland.
Moving between Nadia’s confinement in a hospital bed and exotic 1950s Alexandria, this was a dual time story that totally gripped me from its opening pages – I settled down and read it from cover to cover in a single sitting, and found it both a fascinating and compelling read.
In the present day, Nadia is hospitalised and suffering both confusion and memory loss, fixated on the need to find her sister Simone who disappeared from her life over 50 years ago. The drawing of her hospital experience is searingly realistic – the inability of the busy staff to treat her as an individual, the not listening, the impatience, the discussions at the bedside. The doctors have decided that she’s destined for a move into care, an elderly mentally infirm assessment unit, and it only makes her need to find her sister all the more urgent. She has a box of precious postcards, sent by Simone from a variety of locations – the words on them are often enigmatic, words and phrases that might provide a clue to her whereabouts, and Nadia examines their detail obsessively in the hope that she can decipher their cryptic messages. When one kind nurse lends her an iPad and shows her how to use it, it opens up a whole new range of possibilities for her search, but time is running out.
As her memories are triggered, the story takes us to the Alexandria of her youth, initially a coming of age story set against a backdrop of Egypt through a time of enormous political and cultural change. But the story itself focuses more on family and relationships, seen through a child’s eyes, with a whole range of exotic and colourful characters – it’s richly detailed, and I was entirely transported to both the era and the location. Through a series of small remembered incidents, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, it paints a fascinating picture of the place of women in a patriarchal society – but if that makes it sound “dry”, it most certainly isn’t. There’s a tremendous vibrancy and energy about the writing, as Nadia meanders through her memories of life surrounded by her extended family and the assortment of dubious aunts and uncles, her child’s eye view not quite capturing the underlying seediness of their lives and some of their actions. And the narrative slowly moves us through Nadia’s life – her decisions as an adult that have had such an impact on her life, and brought her to the point where she’s alone in her hospital bed with her box of postcards.
The author captures characters and conveys them in a few deft strokes in a way I thought was quite exceptional – the hospital staff, her friend Sheila (her only visitor), the various people who’ve touched her life – and her facility in building the worlds her book inhabits quite took my breath away. And, always at the story’s centre, Nadia is a superb character – strong, determined, wryly funny – and you can’t help being firmly in her corner as others dismiss her quest for her missing sister as the product of her confused mind. As well as the fascination with her life, it’s that quest that makes the pages turn ever faster – and it all plays out totally deliciously, with a few surprises along the way. And the author’s emotional touch is simply perfect.
Very different, immersive and compelling, both funny and disturbing, totally unforgettable, I entirely loved this book – and Nadia will have a place in my heart forever. I recommend this one really highly – one of my books of the year.
‘A compelling, multi-layered read – equal parts funny, frank and sinister‘ — Fiona Valpy, author of The Dressmaker’s Gift
‘an intriguing novel, where memory loss and confusion, sensitively treated, combine to add suspense.’ — Margaret Mountford, chair of The Bailey’s Prize for Fiction 2016
‘Wonderfully written, with shades of Elizabeth is Missing, The Girls from Alexandria is a sweeping story about family, secrets and the meaning of “home”. I was completely charmed.’ – Fiona Lucas, author of The Last Goodbye
About the author
Carol Cooper is a doctor, journalist, and author. Born in London, she was only a few months old when her cosmopolitan family took her to live in Egypt. She returned to the UK at eighteen and went to Cambridge University where she studied medicine and her fellow students. On her path to a career in general practice, she worked at supermarket checkouts, typed manuscripts in Russian, and spent years as a hospital doctor.
Following a string of popular health books as well as an award-winning medical textbook, Carol turned to writing fiction. Her first two novels were contemporary tales set in London. Ever a believer in writing what you know, she mined the rich material of her childhood for The Girls from Alexandria.
Carol lives with her husband in Cambridge and Hampstead. She has three grownup sons and three stepchildren.