Sunday, May 16, 2021

A Theater for Dreamers

  A Theater for Dreamers
Author:  Polly Samson
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2021. 336 pages.

ISBN:  1643751492 / 978-1643751498

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and a publisher's blog tour free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "It's a climb from the port and I take the steps of Donkey Shit Lane at a steady pace, a heart-shaped stone in my pocket."

Favorite Quote:  "Have some adventures ... Dare to dream."

***** BLOG TOUR *****


Leonard Cohen - singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist. Charmaine Clift - Australian writer, essayist, and George Johnston's wife. George Johnston - Australian journalist, war correspondent, novelist, and Charmaine Clift's husband. Axel Jensen - Norwegian author. Marianne Ihlen - Axel Jensen's wife, later Leonard Cohen's girlfriend and muse, and subject of Leonard Cohen's song So Long, Marianne.

These historical figures crossed paths in the 1960s on the Greek island of Hydra. This is the setting, history, and story that this book builds on. It introduces fictional characters - eighteen year of Erica, her brother, and a group of young, idealistic friends. They come seeking escape and adventure. Erica comes armed with blank journals, aspiring to be a writer.

The title of "theater" and "dreamers" conjures an image. The description of "utopia," "idyllic," and "bohemian" conjures an image. Unfortunately for me, the image scatters in the story. 

Erica and her brother emerge from the death of their mother, unexpected bequests upon that death, and what is clearly an abusive household at the hands of their father. Yet, that thread remains unresolved. It serves only as an impetus to this journey.

The book begins in London and arrives in Hydra partially by way of the hippie trail. There are incidents on the journey, but the journey seems inconsequential and immaterial to the destination. Perhaps, the book would be better served beginning with their arrival on the island for the origin and path of the journey do not build or contribute to the rest of the book.

The true beginning of the story - with this group's arrival on the island - introduces an even wider cast of characters than the six who arrive on the island. It is the inhabitants of the islands who become the true heart of the story. Interestingly, the book and the description refers to the expatriates on Hydra as a colony. Even with the wide cast of the book, the overall number of foreign residents does not seem large enough to constitute a colony. Nevertheless, it becomes challenging to follow the characters and the relationships. I find myself taking a break to research some of the nonfiction history of this cast to provide context for the context is not to be found in the book. I am glad I knew the nonfiction basis of the book to be able to do the research. Simply reading the entire book as fiction would like be more challenging.

With a wide cast of characters, I look for one anchor. Given the setup, that should be Erica. 
The most interesting character to me is Charmaine Clift, for her story focuses on the role of women and the challenges faced by women in different professions as she finds her own career taking a back seat to that of her husband.

Unfortunately, the book proceeds in a scattered fashion and does not provide the character or plot development in a main character or a main plot line. To some extent, this book is like a mosaic in which the individual pieces are interesting but do not quite come together to form a whole. Sadly, I find the history interesting, but I find myself not the reader for this book.

About the Author

Polly Samson is a writer of fiction and a lyricist. Her words have appeared on four number one albums, including Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell and David Gilmour’s On an Island. She has also worked as a journalist and in publishing, including two years as a columnist for the Sunday Times. Samson was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018. Her first novel, Out of the Picture, was shortlisted for the Author’s Club Award, and many of her stories, including those from her first collection Lying in Bed, have been read on Radio 4. A second collection of short stories, Perfect Lives, was a Book at Bedtime. She has written an introduction to a collection of Daphne du Maurier’s earliest stories and has been a judge for the Costa Book Awards. Her 2015 novel The Kindness was named a Book of the Year by both the Times and the Observer.

About the Book

In April of 1960, a young Leonard Cohen arrived on the beautiful Greek island of Hydra, dreaming of completing his first novel under the warmth of the island sun. Just twenty-five years old, the charismatic poet was welcomed into the community of artists and writers who also made their home on the island, including the Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, the Norwegian painter Axel Jensen, and Axel’s gentle, doting wife Marianne, who would soon become Leonard’s muse, inspiring his classic songs “So Long Marianne” and “Bird on the Wire.” Now, based on this bohemian community and their legendary exploits, Polly Samson’s A THEATER FOR DREAMERS (Publication Date: May 11, 2021; Hardcover; $26.95) transports American readers to the idyllic, sun-soaked island of Hydra in the same way that Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins took readers to the coast of Italy. Hailed as “an impressionistic, intoxicating rush of sensory experience” by The Sunday Times and as “a blissful piece of escapism… [and] a surefire summer hit” by The Guardian, A THEATER FOR DREAMERS debuted as an instant UK bestseller upon publication last May, and was named a best novel of the year by The Times and The Sunday Times, The Spectator, The Daily Mail and many more.

When eighteen-year-old Erica arrives on Hydra, the world teeters on the edge of cultural, political, sexual, and artistic revolution. Fresh off the boat from London, with nothing but a bundle of blank notebooks and a burning desire to leave home in the wake of her mother’s death, she is embraced by the troubled queen and king of bohemia, Charmian and George, and by the proto-commune of poets, painters, and musicians that revel in dreams at the feet of their unofficial leaders. Among these artists, she will find an unraveling utopia where everything is tested—the nature of art, relationships, and her own innocence.

Both a writer of fiction and a lyricist, Polly Samson has also worked as a journalist and in publishing, and her words have appeared on four number one albums, including Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell and her husband David Gilmour’s On an Island. She was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018, and her 2015 novel, The Kindness, was named a Book of the Year by The Times and The Observer. “It was Charmian Clift’s 1959 memoir Peel Me a Lotus that set me on the path to the Greek island of Hydra, and to a fascination with Charmian,” she explains. “My (extensive) research uncovered a cache of over 1500 photographs of the community she and her husband fostered on the island, which included the young Leonard Cohen, Gregory Corso, Axel Jensen, Goran Tunstrom, and Gordon Merrick. I became fascinated by identifying all the people in the photographs, and began immersing myself in this bohemian circle, dreaming my own novel set among them into being.”

Roiling with the heat of a Grecian summer and based on true events, A THEATER FOR DREAMERS is a spellbinding tour-de-force about the beauty between naïveté and cruelty, chaos and utopia, artist and muse—and about the wars waged between men and women on the battlegrounds of genius.

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