In the 1950s the Greek island of Hydra became a magnet for artists and writers, including Lawrence Durrell, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller. Polly Samson’s fifth work of fiction, set in this makeshift artists’ colony in 1960, zeroes in on the married Australian authors Charmian Clift and George Johnston, Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, his wife Marianne Ihlen, and an unknown young poet from Canada named Leonard Cohen.
We see all of these real-life characters from the perspective of our starry-eyed narrator, Erica, a seventeen-year-old outsider. In a framing story set c. late 2016, after she hears of Leonard’s death, Erica has returned to Hydra as an old woman. Yet that first gold summer is still intensely alive in her memory. She decided to decamp to Hydra just before Easter in 1960, with her boyfriend Jimmy and her brother Bobby, because Charmian was once their late mother’s closest friend back in London. Erica’s inheritance would go far here: “people like us … can live for a year in the sun on what it’d cost us for a month in a dingy bedsit at home.”
Love triangles abound and emotions run high on Hydra. Gradually Erica learns that just about everyone has slept with, or is currently sneaking around with, someone they aren’t married to. Meanwhile, Bobby and friends sleep late and paint, then party well into the night. While Erica is the responsible mother hen at their villa, seeing that everyone gets fed, she indulges her hedonistic side, too – going to every bash and spending half the day in bed with Jimmy.
Charmian becomes a kind of surrogate mother to Erica, but remains spiky due to her jealousy over George’s greater literary success while she has to care for the children and act as his amanuensis. “They’re the closest thing I have to a family,” Erica writes of Charmian and George and the wider expatriate circle. “I love them all: their banter and moods and tears and wild laughter, all of it, every chaotic bit of it.” But there’s a sense that the idyll can’t last.
This is a novel simply dripping with atmosphere. You can feel the Mediterranean heat soaking up through your sandals; see the piercing sunlight reflecting off white-washed buildings; smell the ripening fruit and herbs and fresh-caught fish. There are dozens of evocative passages I could quote from, but here is part of one of my favourites:
The port throbs with tourists and the street cats grow fat. The cicadas are busy breaking a hundred hearts with their songs. We pull our mattresses out to the terrace and sleep beneath the stars, wake with the sun … We pick over platters of fish at taverna tables, or drift from courtyard to courtyard with our records and poems, or take bottles of beer and eat bread and meatballs beneath the tumbling vines of the outdoor cinema … We have all become leaner, our legs muscled from the steps, Bobby and Jimmy’s shoulders almost amphibian from swimming. Sometimes we take a bag of peaches and a flask of coffee to the cave and grab a dip before the port is fully awake, other times we swim late at night and lie naked between the moon and the tide on the still-warm rocks.
If you’re getting cabin fever and are hankering for some armchair travelling, I can’t recommend a trip to 1960 Hydra enough. There are two prizes that specifically recognize literature with a strong sense of place: The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize is “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place,” as is the Cicerone (fiction) prize, part of the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards. I’d be willing to bet that A Theatre for Dreamers will be shortlisted for one or both of those next year.
My thanks to Bloomsbury Circus for the free copy for review.