Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 368 pages; 2021.
Polly Samson’s novel A Theatre for Dreamers was very much inspired by Charmian Clift’s extraordinary 1950s memoir Peel Me a Lotus, which is about her time living on the Greek island of Hydra.
Clift was an expat Australian who decamped to the Greek islands with her husband, the celebrated war correspondent and budding novelist George Johnston, and their two young children in the mid-1950s to focus on her writing.
Samson mines Clift’s experience to create a lush story about the tangled lives of an eclectic collection of writers, poets, musicians and artists escaping the trappings of ordinary life to follow their dreams and creative yearnings.
A Theatre for Dreamers is narrated by Erica, an 18-year-old who has inherited a sum of money from her late mother to “chase her dreams”. Escaping the claustrophobic confines of her London life and a cruel, overbearing father, she travels to Hydra, accompanied by her older brother, Bobby, and her boyfriend, Jimmy, harbouring the idea of becoming a writer.
Here, she tracks down Charmian Clift, who was her mother’s friend, and is welcomed into the Johnston family like a long-lost older daughter.
But as much as Erica plans to focus on her writing, she gets sidetracked by endless summer days, drinking wine and going to parties with the Bohemian set, exploring the island on foot, swimming in the sea and sleeping with her boyfriend with whom she’s deeply in love.
I climb to the top road, up the twisting steps that rise between ever more tumbledown houses, some lots marked only by rubble and boulders clad in vines, occasionally a brave bread oven or a chimney left standing where nature reigns. Crumbling stone walls host fig trees and passion fruit, sudden clear vistas to the sea, wild squashes and capers, a family of kittens. The low sun burnishes every tuft and seed head softest gold and releases the scent of night jasmine. From above, a donkey is playing its violin face at me and I clamber up the loose wall to its tether and scratch all the places it tells me are itching.
Not much happens plot-wise in this novel, which is essentially a coming-of-age tale, but its vivid descriptions of the island and its characters — all clearly inspired by Clift’s own writings — make for a deeply evocative read.
The increasing tension within Clift’s marriage to Johnston is a central focus, as is the growing love affair between Canadian poet (later turned singer-songwriter) Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ilhen. These relationships, filtered through the eyes of a teenage Erica, are embued with a romanticism and sheen that perhaps only the young can see.
But as events unfold slowly over the summer, Erica begins to realise that appearances can be deceiving and that the heart can be wounded so very easily. And she begins to see that idyllic island life is but an illusion: humans and their relationships are messy and convoluted and happiness can be fleeting.
Immersive reading experience
Admittedly, I do not generally get on with contemporary British fiction (which is why this blog tends to focus on literature from other parts of the world), so it came as a bit of a surprise that I liked this one so much. And yet I think if I had not read Peel Me a Lotus immediately beforehand, much of the power and beauty of Samson’s novel might have been lost on me. There was something about reading Clift’s work followed by A Theatre for Dreamers that made it a cumulative and immersive experience.
This effect, I hasten to add, was heightened by having watched on Apple TV earlier this year Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary film Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love about Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ilhen’s love affair (and which is now screening on Netflix Australia and which I highly recommend if you are in any way interested about Hydra and the Bohemian set at that time).
It could be argued that a novel must be able to stand on its own, so I’m not in a position to judge whether this one can do that given that I felt like I already knew the characters in it. Yes, their lives have been fictionalised here, but so much about them felt rooted in fact, providing a ring of authenticity — and charm — to the storyline.
Regardless, A Theatre for Dreamers is a wonderfully sensual read about love and art and the challenge of living a creative life. It’s a little like a soap opera in the sun, complete with heightened drama, troubled characters — and a tragic ending.
This is my 16th book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it earlier this year after I watched the Broomfield documentary cited above.
12 thoughts on “‘A Theatre for Dreamers’ by Polly Samson”
I read this novel last year with no knowledge of of Charmian Clift but desperate for some vicarious travel during lockdown. It certainly gave me that and, like you but for different reasons, I wonder how I might have reacted had I read it pre-pandemic.
I’ve read 4 books in a row all set in the Greek islands… it’s the only travel I will get for quite awhile, I think. Can’t even leave the state of WA much less go abroad. But this book was a lovely lush treat.
I’ve been planning to read this novel in my 20 Books too. I could do with my mind being transported somewhere else at the moment, as I’m not having a holiday again this year!
Yes, no holiday for me either but all these books about the Greek islands have been almost as good as going there in person!
I guess it’s relatively common to write historical fiction around well known characters, though you wouldn’t think Clift and Johnston were well known to anyone except Australians. I wonder how many critics would know Samson had Clift’s material to draw on. I won’t watch the film but I do have a huge Cohen biography waiting for me.
In the acknowledgements, Samson writes about Clift so it would have to be a very ignorant critic who didn’t know the book was based on a real person’s life.
I’m curious: what is it about contemporary British fiction that you don’t much like?
It’s just not very exciting… it’s not particularly adventurous… feels predictable and safe. I’m generalising, of course, but I can’t recall reading a modern British novel that really made me go “wow” for a very long time. But I could name a dozen Irish novels that blew my mind without even really thinking about it…
I think the most interesting British fiction is not really British at all, it’s written by expats from countries in Africa or India.
Beautiful review, Kim! Polly Samson’s book looks wonderful. I like this theme – people moving to a place which they think is paradise, but humans being what they are, things get complicated. I’ll also add ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ to my reading list. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂