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Samson's notes on a small island dazzle and delight

Fiction: A Theatre for Dreamers

Polly Samson

Bloomsbury Circus €19.60


A Theatre for Dreamers

A Theatre for Dreamers

A Theatre for Dreamers

The exquisite Aegean island of Hydra is the sensuous setting for Polly Samson's third novel, A Theatre for Dreamers. The year is 1960; the Sixties have just begun to swing and the Greek utopia is home to a vivid collection of writers, artists and musicians, and a stark contrast to the dour England that narrator Erica is fleeing.

"I look from the mountains to the ziggurats of houses and back to the colourful boats in the harbour and for the first time since we left London I'm happy." Accompanied by her brother Bobby and her boyfriend Jimmy, Erica has been drawn to Hydra by the book she receives in the wake of her mother's death. Charmian Clift was both neighbour and friend; Peel Me A Lotus is her account of her time on the island. "I read of a life of risk and adventure, of a family swimming from rocks in crystal waters, of mountain flowers, of artists admired and poseurs quietly ridiculed." Funded by her mother's £1,000 bequest, Erica escapes her vicious father and heads for paradise.

One of the many attractions of this accomplished novel is the real-life cast who dance and drink across its dazzling pages. A Canadian poet called Leonard Cohen is here, as is Norwegian writer and wild child Axel Jensen and the luminous lover of both, ethereal Marianne Ihlen.

Leading this crew of artistic sybarites is the Australian literary couple, Charmian and George Johnston. For this reader they resembled an Antipodean Scott and Zelda, though they were also dubbed the Ted and Sylvia of Oz; their fates would mirror the tragic turns of the Plath/Hughes union. Their tempestuous marriage was mired in infidelity, alcoholism, professional jealousy. You will want immediately to research their story, and the catastrophic denouement of their lives will sadden but not surprise.

Our young English band falls in with these dreamers and drifters and soon establishes an indolent routine of partying and coupling, of naked midnight swims and ambrosial dinners, their indulgent hedonism contrasting with the daily drudge of living on a small rock with little electricity and water. Naive interlopers and middle-aged cynics, outsiders and islanders, lovers and foes engage in the struggle to survive, the need to make art and the desire to anaesthetise.

Above all, though, it is in her portrayal of the tangled relationships that Samson (herself a musician's wife) shines. One is that between Marianne, married to the monstrous Axel (it's distressing to find out what became of their only child, a sweet baby in these pages), until she's rescued by Cohen.

However, charismatic Charmian is the queen of this sceptred isle, and her relationship with her irascible, unpleasant husband fuels the drama and the pain. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is doing the rounds, yet the women mind the children, stretch meagre funds, clean and cook while the men wrestle with their genius. As Bobby remarks, "those two women don't make being a muse look at all amusing, do they?".

Samson frames her story with an older Erica revisiting the bright place of her adolescence, recalling the violence and cruelty which lay beneath this sunniest of stages. Here were songs of innocence and experience, gilded youth and cynical cuckolds, carefree tourists and watchful locals, simmering tensions and erotic envies, all evoked with a lush and memorable palette. I spent a blissful week on Hydra a couple of summers ago. A Theatre for Dreamers made me want to return to its golden shores, as soon as pandemic permits, armed with everything Samson has ever written.

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