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Book Review: A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

And my first book of the year’s complete – one I’ve read not written obviously – and A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson certainly left me dreaming of a sunny, Greek island.

Set in the summer of 1960, A Theatre for Dreamers tells the story of Hydra, where a community of poets, writers and painters converge to live and work.

The leaders of this bohemian paradise are Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston, who have a somewhat turbulent marriage. 

Close to them the triangle of author Axel Jensen, his wife Marianne Ihlen and Canadian poet Leonard Cohen (yes, that one).

It’s into this mix that 18-year-old Erica arrives. 

She’s left home after the death of her beloved mother with her boyfriend Jimmy and a bag full of notebooks. She too harbours dreams of becoming a writer and a life of adventure.

As she throws herself into island life, Erica, observes her new friends, their lives, dramas, fights and loves; she’s both obsessed and disturbed as paradise slowly starts to come apart, because let’s be honest, summer always to comes to an end and no can permanently dodge reality forever.

A Theatre for Dreamers is historical fiction about how bohemians descended on Hydra and the messy lives they lived. It’s about how Marianne Ihlen met Leonard Cohen and became his muse (many of his songs are about her), it’s about growing up and the battles between men and women.

Where do I begin with this one?

I wasn’t overly enamoured.

If I’m being brutal, I got a bit bored of listening to this set of bohemians’ bitch and gossip about each other. 

I got annoyed with Erica constantly buzzing around and putting herself at the centre of other people’s drama; I mean every time she saw something she shouldn’t have she ran straight to Charmian under the guise of “she’ll know what to do”, where actually she was a bit desperate to belong. I understood Erica’s motivations, I understood why an untethered, grieving teenager would be desperate to belong, I could even understand why she latched onto Charmian as a mother figure, but she still irritated me.

There were plenty of positives to take from A Theatre for Dreamers though and there were things I enjoyed.

Firstly, Polly Samson tackles a period of cultural history I knew nothing about. I did enjoy finding out more about them and how they intertwined even if it was a soap opera. I have no idea how anyone managed to get anything published with the constant swimming and knocking back ouzo outside Katsikas.

It’s obvious how much research has gone into telling the stories of these people and I know Polly Samson’s put in a lot of work to bring them to life in a way which is true to them, that can’t be an easy thing to do, and I did in parts find it interesting.

Secondly, Hydra leaps off the page. I feel like I walked up every single step with Erica and each of the scenes clearly. Samson paints it beautifully, I loved her descriptions, how she was able to show the change in time through nature. It was perfect to escape to a Greek island in depths of winter in Lancashire where it’s pissed it down with rain since Christmas Day.

Thirdly, I liked the exploration of the different roles for men and women.

It’s the women who do the grunt work, they forgo their ambitions to ensure their genius men have the right environment to create in.

Charmian puts her own work to one side in order to help George, even though he uses her as an emotional punchbag. 

Marianne, everyone’s muse, is adept at making sure Leonard has peace and his favourite snack on his desk; something she used to do for Axel before him.

Even Erica leaves her books blank in order to be the house skivvy and run after Jimmy 24 hours a day. 

Unfortunately, this exploration of how different it is for male and female creators didn’t go far enough and it got lost in the middle of the gossip between this group in places.

As historical fiction goes, A Theatre for Dreamers is certainly interesting. I haven’t read anything like it before and I did like the subject matter but for me, it  became repetitive and just missed the mark.

Until next time….

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

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