A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson: Trouble in paradise

Cover imageI’d enjoyed all three books by Polly Samson I’d read before A Theatre for Dreamers arrived, including her cleverly linked collection of short stories, Perfect Lives. I reviewed her last novel, The Kindness, here back in 2015 which feels like an age ago now. She writes the kind of absorbing, character-driven fiction that can offer some intelligent escapism, just the ticket for taking your mind of the Covid 19 misery. Set in 1960, her new novel tells the story of a group of artists, writers and hedonists drawn to the beautiful Greek island of Hydra, where Leonard Cohen met his muse, Marianne.

We lapped up the freedom our elders fought for and our appetites reached well beyond their narrow, war-shattered shadows 

Eighteen-year-old Erica has nursed her mother through her final illness, surprised to find she’s been left £1,000. Lost in grief, Erica decides to spend her legacy on a year living on Hydra, the setting for the novel written by her mother’s friend, Charmian Clift. She, her brother and her boyfriend take themselves off to Greece. Erica is entranced by the beauty of this place, the sights, sounds and smells so new and so alluring, keeping house while Jimmy pursues his dream of writing poetry when he’s not eyeing-up beautiful women. Erica has her own dreams of becoming a writer, keeping a journal of her days spent on this island whose artistic community is riven with gossip, whether it be about Charmian and her husband George, whose novel includes a thinly-veiled account of his wife’s affair, or the recently-arrived Canadian poet who’s consoling the wife of Axel Jensen, the womaniser Charmian warns Erica against. Over the course of a summer which sees Erica drawn deeper into the island’s creative circle, her heart will be broken and a few illusions shattered while a romance plays out that will capture the imagination of many for decades.

The hills flame with yellow flowers, the mountains are tipped with rose gold, every whitewashed wall shines crsytalline with quartz 

Samson opens her novel with Erica’s return to Hydra after both Leonard and Marianne have died, telling the story of that vividly remembered year in Erica’s own voice lending it a bright immediacy. Her novel is crammed with gorgeous descriptions of Hydra, glittering with sunlight, and her characterisation is excellent, neatly capturing Erica’s wide-eyed naivete and her desparate need to fill the chasm left by her mother. There’s a pleasing thread of feminism running through this novel where men tend to let their eyes wander while women all too often are left holding the baby or stirring the pot. Charmian presses a copy of The Second Sex on Erica telling her that her mother wanted more than domesticity for her; I wanted to cheer when she longs to bash Jimmy over the head with it. Samson wisely keeps Leonard and Marianne in the background, saving her novel from becoming a re-hash of a much-told story, instead focussing on George and Charmian whose book inspired this novel as she tells us in her acknowledgements. Immersive and colourful with a cast of wonderfully imagined characters, it’s the perfect escapist read during our current woes: a much needed mini holiday which may be all we get this year.

Bloomsbury: London 2020 9781526600554 348 pages Hardback

14 thoughts on “A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson: Trouble in paradise”

  1. For me Samson is one of those writers that hovers on the edge of your consciousness but whose books you somehow never get round to reading. Maybe now I have so much more time on my hands! I have to say that I might have been more impressed if Erica actually had bashed Jimmy over the head with The Second Sex. It’s a jolly hefty book!

  2. This does sound a great piece of escapism! I’m glad Leonard Cohen and Marianne are in the background, I’m always a bit conflicted about fictional biography, although I have enjoyed some.

  3. See, from the marketing around it, I thought this was a fictional biography of Leonard and Marianne. But if it isn’t, then I’m more interested (I found that documentary on TV incredibly depressing). I spent a short holiday in Hydra and of course nowadays it is the weekend playground of rich Athenians, very different!

    1. Such a shame! That marketing had put me off a little but when the book arrived I was desperate for a bit of vicarious travel so dove in. Leonard and Marianne are significant characters but far from centre stage.

  4. The setting sounds wonderful; very evocative. I’m often attracted to stories from this period, and this seems like a good one. Lovely review as ever, Susan. You seem to have a knack for communicating so much in just a few paragraphs.

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