Tag Archives: Polly Samson

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

Paperbacks to Look Out For in March 2016

Cover imageNot nearly so many paperbacks to look forward to for me in March as there were in February, and four of them I’ve already read and reviewed. Two of those popped up on my 2015 Books of the Year posts, the first of which tied with four others at the top of the tree. Sarah Leipciger’s superb The Mountain Can Wait is the sad story of Tom Berry and his son who has knocked down a young woman in the early hours after a party then fled. Leipciger’s writing is remarkable: she’s nailed that stripped-down, spare simplicity which conveys so much in a single phrase, and she’s a mistress of ‘show not tell’. The sense of place is strikingly vivid: in just a few words she made me feel that I was striding around the Canadian bush. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, one of the finest debuts I read last year.

Entirely different, Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House also made it on to my 2015 list. It begins with a middle-aged woman, about to take off on her first holiday abroad, picking up a paper in which the mysterious deaths of three people in north London are reported. She’s never met these three but somehow she’s convinced she’s responsible for their demise. McGrann combines a sharp eye for characterisation with wry humour and some arrestingly vivid descriptions in this entertaining piece of storytelling. There’s a pleasing dark edge running through it and the ending is pure Southern Gothic.

If you’ve been following Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy you’ll no doubt be Cover imagedelighted to hear that the final part will soon be in paperback. Beginning with a reunion Golden Age picks up where Early Warning left off taking the Langdons from 1987 into the twenty-first century. As the novel progresses, the next generation moves seamlessly into the spotlight before focussing on their own children. The trilogy comes to a close with two events, both of which will draw the family together again in a world very different from the one in which it opened. Undoubtedly Smiley’s literary legacy, all three novels are assured, thought-provoking, magisterial and damn fine stories. You could read Golden Age as a standalone novel but I can’t imagine why you’d want to deprive yourself of the first two.

Polly Samson’s The Kindness opens at roughly the same time as Golden Age, with Julia meeting Julian. She’s flying her husband’s Harris hawk and he – struggling up the hill and struck by her beauty – falls instantly for her. Soon the two are besotted but eight years later a grief-stricken Julian is looking back at his life with Julia. A thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read, Samson’s novel is a triumph of clever plotting. Several times throughout her narrative I congratulated myself on realising what the promised ‘explosive secret’ was only to have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet.

Cover imageJust one that I haven’t read: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper was much talked about last year when it came out in hardback. In it a married couple who share a love of birds move from America to Switzerland. ‘The Wallcreeper is nothing more than a portrait of marriage, complete with all its requisite highs and lows: drugs, dubstep, small chores, anal sex, eco-terrorism, birding, breeding and feeding’ say the publishers while Zink, herself, describes it as ‘a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code’. I’m cautiously intrigued.

That’s it for March. A click on a title will take you to my review for the titles I’ve read and Waterstones website for The Wallcreeper. If you’d like to catch up with my hardback preview it’s here.

The Kindness by Polly Samson: Oh what a tangled web we weave…

The Kindness I enjoyed Polly Samson’s first novel, Out of the Picture, very much. She’s also written two collections of short stories one of which – the cleverly linked Perfect Lives which turned out to be about anything but – I was particularly taken with. She’s not one of those authors whose name is on everyone’s lips although The Kindness seems to have gone down well. If I had to compare her to other writers in that time-honoured way that publishers love so much, I’d say we were in Julie Myerson territory: perceptive portrayals of family life, unafraid to explore the darker side with a few pleasing twists. It’s the kind of novel that it’s hard not to gulp down: we’re set up for a dark secret by the book’s blurb which keeps incorrigibly nosy readers like me eagerly turning the pages.

It opens in 1989 with Julia meeting Julian. She’s flying her husband’s Harris hawk and he – struggling up the hill and struck by her beauty – falls instantly for her. Already on the brink of leaving her controlling husband, Julia moves in with Julian and soon the two are besotted. Eight years later, Julian, recovering from a debilitating illness, is grief-stricken. Mira, the couple’s daughter, has been desperately ill. His beloved Firdaws, the childhood home which the family has reclaimed, has been stripped of all traces of both his daughter and Julia. As he tries to find a way of dealing with what has happened – first batting away all attempts to help him, then giving in to the ministrations of his insistent ex-girlfriend – he remembers his life with Julia, telling their story to himself and to us. Five years later, Julia picks up the narrative, throwing an entirely new and different light on events. The novel ends in 2012 with a reunion.

Samson’s novel is a triumph of clever plotting. Several times throughout her narrative I congratulated myself on realising what the promised ‘explosive secret’ was only to have the carpet pulled from beneath my feet. Switching her narrative from Julian to Julia is a masterstroke. Samson smoothly slips small, telling details into the tangle of misunderstandings and misinterpretations that she’s deftly woven. Her writing is often quite striking, vividly conjuring up the heat of summer and the gorgeous decoration with which Julia transforms the couple’s dingy London flat. A thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing read, then. Just one complaint, and it’s a small one: the main protagonists’ names – a little too much of the ‘made for each other for me’.

Books to Look Out for In March 2015

The Faithful CoupleSuch are the many temptations in March’s publishing schedules that this is going to be a long post, I’m afraid. I’ll begin with A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple as it’s the one I’m looking forward to most. That name may ring a few bells for some readers – he’s the author of Snowdrops a hugely successful literary thriller set in Moscow in the 1990s published back in 2010. This one sounds entirely different. It begins in 1993 with two British men, Neil and Adam, who meet on holiday in California and go on a camping trip together which will throw a shadow over both of them. The novel follows them over the next two decades reflecting and refracting London through their lives and friendship until the truth of that trip emerges. I always find this kind of structure particularly attractive and I enjoyed Snowdrops very much.

Patrick Gale needs no introduction after the rip-roaring success of the Richard and Judy (remember all that?) bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. A Place Called Winter is based on his own family history, telling the story of Henry Cane, forced by scandal to emigrate to the Canadian prairies where he sets up as a farmer in the eponymous settlement. According to the publisher it’s ‘an epic, intimate human drama, both brutal and breathtaking. It is a novel of secrets, sexuality and, ultimately, of great love’. A grand claim but I’ve yet to read a Gale that I didn’t enjoy.

I have to say that the publisher’s blurb for Polly Samson’s The Kindness is a tad overblown but it boils down to this – Julian falls passionately in love with Julia, married and eight years his senior. Against all advice they throw up everything to be together enjoying their happiness until their daughter Mira becomes seriously ill forcing Julia to reveal a terrible secret. This may not sound too inspiring but the prose is ‘lyrical’, apparently, and the plotting ‘masterful – I enjoyed her previous books, Out of the Picture and Perfect Lives, very much

Sara Taylor’s debut The Shore is more a set of interconnecting stories than a novel. It spans a The Shorecentury and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of a group of small islands off the coast of Virginia. I’m not a short story fan, I’m afraid – I prefer something to get my teeth into – but when they’re linked in this way they can work extraordinarily well, as the aforementioned Perfect Lives did for me, and I like the sound of the setting very much. Lots of comparisons in the blurb, including one to Cloud Atlas, but I’m not letting that put me off.

I have to confess I don’t remember Judith Claire Mitchell’s The Last Days of Winter which was published ten years ago but A Reunion of Ghosts sounds right up my street. Three sisters living together in a New York apartment at the end of the last century have decided to kill themselves. It’s something of a family tradition, so it seems, beginning with their great-grandmother, the wife of a Jewish Nobel Prize-winning chemist who developed the poison gas used in both world wars. A little on the dark side, admittedly, but it sounds fascinating.

Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut Hausfrau takes us to a wealthy Zurich suburb where American ex-pat Anna Benz lives with her husband and three young children. Disconnected and isolated, Anna plunges into a series of passionate affairs which will eventually end in tragedy as her life unravels. Billed as a ‘literary page-turner’ it sounds as if it has more than a touch of the Emma Bovarys but nevertheless has the makings of an absorbing read

Cover imageI spotted the jacket of Molly McGrann’s The Ladies of the House on Twitter and couldn’t resist it. Reading the blurb it seemed even better: One hot July day three elderly people are found dead in a rundown house in Primrose Hill. Spotting the story in the paper Marie Gillies feels she is somehow to blame. McGrann’s novel pieces together what has happened, entering the secret world of the ladies of the house. It comes from the editor who brought us two of my books of 2014: The Miniaturist and Shotgun Lovesongs. Enough said, for me, anyway.

And finally, Anna Gavalda’s Billie has already been a huge seller in France. It’s the story of two unlikely friends: Franck, a bright, sensitive young boy with a bigoted father and a depressed mother, and Bille, desperate to escape her abusive family. Billie tells Franck her story when they find themselves trapped in a mountain gorge on holiday. I loved Gavalda’s Consolation and her Hunting and Gathering – she has a light touch with storytelling which I’m hoping to see more of in Billie.

Phew! That’s it for March, and if you’ve yet to catch up with February here are the hardbacks and here are the paperbacks.