Book Review: A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson

Escaping to a Greek Island where you can live cheaply for a year just so you can focus on your art, bask in the sun, swim and enjoy the delights of love, food and wine – what an idyll. Hydra in 1960 was just such an island, captured here in A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson. Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston are established on Hydra and help out newly arrived artists eager to take a break from the rat-race to finish their novels, paint or create poetry.

It is where eighteen-year-old Erika holes up, still grieving the death of her mother and escaping a volatile father, London rain and the typing pool. With her is her boyfriend, emerging poet Jimmy, and brother Bobby and his girlfriend. There’s a connection with Charmian through Erika’s mother, and an expectation they can find a cheap house.

Madly in love, Erika doesn’t mind doing the donkey work – making sure they have clean water, meals and fetching ice to keep their food fresh. Charmian takes pity on her and encourages her to write – she sees in Erika a daughter figure, but also the watchfulness of a budding writer.

And there’s plenty to see – in particular the twenty-five-year-old Leonard Cohen, fresh off the boat with his guitar, eager to finish his first novel. But he’s distracted by Scandinavian beauty, Marianne Ihlen who is caught in a disastrous marriage with Axel Jansen, himself an enfant terrible of the literary world in Norway.

As well as a hub for expats coming and going, Charmian and George’s house becomes a second home to Erika. But the pair have financial problems, drink too much and argue a lot, George has poor health and issues with jealousy. Ah, the lives of the bohemians. Shaking off conformity and the rules of the nine-to-five working life, this enclave of creatives explore many new freedoms, break each other’s hearts and live like characters from bacchanalian scenes on a Grecian urn.

Samson has done a mound of research to bring these artists to life, helped no doubt by the records made not only in their writing, but in the pictures of Time-Life photographer, James Burke. The novel is in many ways a social history, highlighting the emergence of the counter-culture era that would turn into the swinging sixties, but also the feminism that waits in the wings.

And boy is it needed as several key female characters are left holding the baby, wiping the weary brows of their men, playing muse and ignoring their own careers. There is a lot in the book to think about as you read about the endless parties, the infidelities and drunken escapades. In the background the conservative local Greek population must have been pleased with the extra business garnered at the time the sponge industry was drying up, while shaking their heads at the various improprieties.

There are a lot of names – you might want to keep the Internet handy. I struggled to keep up with the different personalities that swept through. But I felt a strong sense of being there; Samson describes the island using all five senses and this alone makes the book really quite wonderful. A four out of five read from me.

Lockdown Listening 2: The Go-Between by L P Hartley

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

So begins the The Go-Between, L P Hartley’s 1953 coming-of-age novel, where a man in his sixties looks back on his childhood and the summer of 1900 which changed the shape of his life to come.

When a measles epidemic strikes their school, twelve-year-old Leo Colston is invited by his friend Marcus to stay for a few weeks with his family in Norfolk. The Maudsleys have adult guests visiting and things will be dull for Marcus without company his own age. Whisked away to Brandham Hall, Leo is suddenly aware he is socially out of his depth, lacking the right clothes and knowledge of how things are done. Leo is soon charmed by Marcus’s sister, Marion, and over the summer makes something of a hit with the family, as well as (Lord) Trimingham, the scarred war veteran Marion is expected to marry.

Often left to his own devices, Leo wanders about, venturing onto the farm of Ted Burgess, a fit young man with a rough way of speaking who is known the the Maudsleys. Leo finds himself taking a message to Marion from Ted, little knowing the he is aiding their secret affair. Over the following weeks, Leo – so eager to please – becomes the lovers’ postman.

The narrative has a vein of humour running through it, highlighting the naiveté of Leo, and capturing the way boys think and bounce off each other. But underneath is a sense of unease as the summer heat takes hold – Leo has been warned of the heat from his over-protective mother – and events build up to a boiling-over kind of climax, as storm clouds loom overhead. The iniquities and restrictions of class are a key part of the story, but there is promise too with the new century, or is Leo a symbol of dashed hope here as well?

If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: ‘Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, catologuing other people’s books instead of writing your own?’ … I should have an answer ready. ‘Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.’

This audiobook was read by Sean Barrett and I was soon pulled into the story of Leo, a pawn in affairs that are beyond his comprehension. It’s a brilliant performance, but I just had to dig out my old paperback copy of the book, published as tie-in for the movie starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, to reread passages or rush through others. The novel also had a further screen adaptation and with its bucolic setting, dramatic tension and sense of nostalgia, you see why it works so well on film. A five out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.

Review: Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers by Conor Bowman

Back in Ireland again with a novel set mostly in Galway. The Hughie of the title is a small boy at the beginning of the book, but by the time he’s twelve he’s had to cope with a lot of hard stuff: losing two toes due to an accident with an out of control lawnmower; overhearing his parents reveal that he’s adopted; being sent to boarding school at the age of twelve; losing his mother to suicide and thinking that it’s all his fault.

But Hughie is a determined young lad, and he loves his mother so very much that he embarks on a plan to bring her back. This is impossible you say, she’s dead. His dad knows this, his best friend Nyxi knows this, but when unusual things happen to Hughie it begins to seem possible after all.

Hughie Mittman’s Fear of Lawnmowers is very much a character-driven novel, always a plus for me. There’s Hughie’s difficult father, a philandering surgeon; Nyxi, the girl he meets in hospital after the foot incident, with a badly burned arm. The two become inseparable. ‘Sure but you have three good feet and three good arms between you’ says the lady who sells ice creams. There’s a bunch of peripheral characters you wish you had more time to get to know, such as Hughie’s grandmother in Dublin who is a real trouper towards the end of the book with her no-nonsense manner and hair-raising driving.

But one of the most interesting characters of all is Galway, the setting for a large part of the novel. Galway is lovingly described and seems to have a personality of its own. By the time I’d finished reading the book, I was ready to book my flight. The 1970’s music adds a touch of nostalgia and makes me wonder: are coming-of-age novels set in the past more appealing to older readers than the YA genre aimed at a younger demographic and what deep down is the difference?

I found this coming-of-age novel a quick and charming read, well-written and with an original storyline. Four out of five from me.