Aug/Sep 1998 Book Reviews

Losing Alexandria

Victoria Thompson
Pan Macmillan, 1998 301pp
ISBN: 0-330-36079-5

reviewed by Ann Skea

This is a delicious memoir - a judicious mixture of sights, sounds, tastes and experience, lightly seasoned with poetry and sprinkled with tasty gossip. Gossip and scandal was what conversation revolved around in the Alexandria of Victoria Thompson's childhood. And she knows very well how to titillate her readers.

We hear of Thompson's father's various mistresses, her maid's horror tales of female circumcision and Egyptian hymen repairers, and of a grandfather so passionate about sweets that he kept large stocks of his favourites in a "deep,locked walnut cabinet". In the streets of Alexandria, Thompson shows us Cleopatra's palace, the sharbat man juggling his scented flasks, the harbour and the deserts, and she tells of the horsemen who lost their way "riding inside the three-hundred rooms of Pharos" - the wondrous lighthouse which crumbled away seven-hundred years ago.

Tales of Alexandrian life and family scandals are mixed with glimpses of more well-known people who have been part of Thompson's eventful life. A cantankerous Patrick White (whose partner Manoly Lascaris came from Alexandria) is revealed in a dinner-party sulk; Jack Thompson, Victoria's actor brother-in-law, howls with grief over the accidental death of a favourite horse; Bernardo Bertolucci is seen at the Venice Film Festival and Nicole Kidman passes by with her _Pulp Fiction_ cast of minders. None of this is mere name-dropping: all of it is interesting.

Losing Alexandria is more than a nostalgic return to childhood. "Memory is our secret country...[full] of fires which constantly melt and recast us", writes Thompson. So, all we do and have done, all we have read and learned, colours our perspective. This makes for a richness and variety in this book which is constantly surprising and entertaining.

In the nineteen-fifties, Victoria Thompson and her family left Alexandria and became "exiles", not "grateful immigrants", in Australia. From an ancient, sophisticated, elegant and often decadent city, they came to a place which was, to them, "the desert of the mind and of the soul". But Thompson has clearly grown to love this place and to appreciate its beauty, its peace, its freedom and, most recently, the youthful energy of its mixed cultures. She has grown up with its growing cultural awareness, and this too is part of her memoirs.

Thompson writes that she will never go back to Alexandria because she know she could not face the poverty and cruelty there. But the city which was "dressed in white marble and silk sails" by the "Macedonian boy" - the city to which he gave his name, because "like Narcissus he fell in love with his gorgeous reflection", is the one to which she, like so many others over the centuries, has plainly given her heart.


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