A Theatre for Dreamers, Polly Samson’s third novel, is pages and pages of rapturous fantasy of summer days on a small Greek island at the start of the 1960s. Dazzling sunlight, nude swims in the blue sea, midnight hikes while wrapped in blankets under the stars, stray cat rescues, endless glasses of retsina and ouzo, fresh bread, feta, honey, lemon and olive oil, sardines and grilled octopus and ice-cream. Yes, it is a book for people who wish they could have a holiday right now, and amid the glut of sensory descriptions you really do feel like you’re there – and it’s a really nice feeling. But in a novel of this length, that wealth of atmosphere wants some kind of driving question, or a real plot, to hang itself on.
In 1960, in the wake of her mother’s death, 18-year-old Erica escapes London and the house of her sadistic father and arrives on the island of Hydra. There, her mother’s old friend, who happens to be the Australian writer Charmian Clift, is living with her increasingly bitter writer-husband, George Johnston, and their children. Charmian – warm, formidable and charismatic – takes Erica under her wing and shows her the pleasures and secrets of the island, introduces her to the other long-term members of the “foreign colony”, who are also mostly poets and writers, and fills her in on the incestuous gossip of the group. A young Leonard Cohen shows up a few days after Erica and joins the clutch.
Through Erica’s narration we observe – at a frustrating remove – as Clift and Johnston navigate their struggling marriage, and as Cohen and the Norwegian Marianne Ihlen fall in love. So much of the novel is told in summary: Erica mentions dramatic developments in passing a few days after the fact, and her observations are always limited by her breathless and naive interpretations. The single note that keeps being played is the injustice of women having to cede their time to write, but here, because of the distance of the telling, that moral feels like twopenny feminism. Although Samson has chosen to fictionalise a handful of people whose own writing testifies to their rich and deeply felt lives, she seems to always be hesitating at the brink of diving into the emotional and intellectual substance of her story. The result is a holiday novel with confusing attempts at something greater.
Bloomsbury Circus, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers".
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