Reviewed by Sue Bond
by Emmanuel V Alexion
2006. ISBN 1 9211 1840 7. 280 pp. $AU26.95.
Emmanuel Alexion and his wife Michelle were both born in Greece, on the island of Rhodes: Michelle in the capital, Emmanuel in Asklipio, one of the forty-four small villages on the island. When they were young, their families emigrated to Australia, and the two met in West End, Brisbane. In the late 1990s, the couple decided to travel back to their homeland, and the author wrote his memoir ‘to deliver an account of my feelings on visiting the land of our birth after an absence of almost half a century’.
Alexion is relaxed in his writing, funny and frank in his account of peoples’ behaviour, including their bodily functions. He describes where he and his wife visit, how they travel, the weather, the food and drink, and who they meet. The vagaries of taxi drivers and tenants are described in detail, as are various instances of being ‘ripped-off’.
He begins with a Foreword, noting his success as a newspaper delivery boy and frequent moves between Adelaide and Brisbane, then begins the tale of their adventures in Rhodes, and visiting the islands of the Dodecanese. After an unfortunate start with a taxi driver overcharging (first of many), he settles into stories of his parents, triggered by the places he visits. They find, for example, his father’s pension where he sold ice cream, sang and played the mandolin (his father features on the front cover).
The author has an easy, self-deprecatory style. He tends to use clichés, but sometimes with humour, as in his description of a church which was ‘absolutely packed. No room to swing an icon, as it were.’ Included are photographs of places they visit (in black and white), some of their relatives, and a map of Rhodes.
Of interest are the author’s observations of the changes in his home village: the roof-top communication has been replaced by telecommunication; the skyline marred by electricity lines and television antennas; the television itself, of course. But he also describes the preparation of food (delicious bread, for example) and religious rituals, seemingly timeless in their unchanged regularity. Olive harvesting, wedding preparations and the ubiquitousness of solar water heating are described.
There is a need for less telling and more showing. The author makes mention of a wedding in the village of Asklippio, and a moving wedding song sung by an elderly woman. But it is difficult to get a feel for this without specific, well-chosen details. Instead of ‘she sang it nervously but movingly’, I would like to have known what the words were, what she looked like, the tone of her voice, the look on the faces of those listening, what they did with their bodies while she sang – that sort of description that brings the reader into the scene.
When Alexion writes of his emotional response to singing his own words about his birthplace to the tune of ‘Shenandoah’, the reader gets a clearer feeling for what he is experiencing. I can understand how being in that landscape has affected him, and brought out perhaps unexplainable feelings about going back to the place of one’s origins.
Similarly, I was intrigued by his foreword, where he describes his work as a paperboy, and his difficulties being a ‘wog’ in Australia in the 1950s. There is an ‘alive’ quality to this writing, which is strangely missing in many of the stories of his later travels.
The problem with this memoir is that it reads like an early draft, and this is not totally the fault of the author. A more rigorous editorial approach would have improved it enormously, both in copy-editing and shaping the story. There are too many clichés, misplaced punctuation marks, odd paragraphing, and disjointedness.
The memoir needs to be refocused, so that there are fewer references to toilets and being ripped-off, and more emphasis on what grasps and holds the attention. The character of the people they met, their everyday lives, the landscape, the food and drink, the religious practises, conflicts and so forth all need to be brought forward out of the much less captivating details in which they are enmeshed.
There are perceptive moments, they are just buried beneath unnecessary detail, and skillful assistance would have helped to bring them out and make this a much more lively memoir. Perhaps a second edition? Despite these problems, Emmanuel Alexion has produced a heartfelt and down-to-earth story of he and his wife’s return to their birthplaces, of particular interest to the Greek community in Australia.
About the reviewer: Sue Bond is a writer and reviewer living in Brisbane with her partner and their large cat. She writes reviews for the Courier Mail, Metapsychology Online, Journal of Australian Studies Review of Books, dotlit, Asian Review of Books and Social Alternatives. Some of her short stories have been published in Hecate, Imago, Mangrove and SmokeLong Quarterly, and she has degrees in medicine, literature and creative writing. She is working on a memoir of her adoptive life, as well as short stories and essays. Her blog is at http://geckowriting.blogspot.com