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Novel set on 1960 Hydra, Greece

2nd April 2020

A Theatre for Dreamers by Polly Samson, novel set on 1960 Hydra.

Novel set on 1960 Hydra

A couple of years ago I read Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborne and found it be a quite stunning novel, also set on Hydra. Lawrence Osborne is an author who loves to delve into human interactions, always set against a well defined backdrop and always with a frisson of noir. And therefore I was anticipatory about reading another novel set on the island (and we have several more on the database, it clearly provides a wonderful backdrop for a good story).

Hydra is one of the Saronic Islands in Greece and in the 1960s and 1970s it was the adopted home of a community of artsy people, including the Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen, Australian writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston and the wonderful Leonard Cohen (he wrote Bird on the Wire and So Long, Marianne (dedicated to the wife of the aforementioned Axel) whilst he was on the island.

The author sets teenager Erica into this group and her ‘in’, as it were, is that her mother and Charmian were friends. Erica’s mother has recently passed away and a copy of Charmian’s book arrives. Spurred on by the behaviour of her abusive father, Erica sets off in a motor car that her mother had hidden from the family (and is now revealed in her legacy), taking with her brother Bobby and her boyfriend Jimmy. She is searching to somehow connect with her mother and arrives at Charmian’s house with a group of other young people in tow. Charmian has organised a house for them to rent and thus it is they soon settle into their new and colourful home on the island.

This is a story of relationships (chaotic and abusive), island life and Erica’s quest to find out more about her mother and her secrets. George and Charmian are in each other’s pockets one minute, as he writes a book that is going to cause shock waves through the society, then bickering like cat and dog the next. We know that Erica’s father humiliated and abused her mother and was controlling to the family members. Axel is a capricious husband who betrays his wife Marianne. She eventually consorts with Leonard.

The author is a skilled and lyrical writer and superbly and evocatively transports the reader to the island in the 1960s and then once again in the 1970s at the end, when Erica is trying to tie up some loose ends.  By the 1970s, of course, much had changed because the Junta now governed Greece and the country had become a very different place. In the 1960s Greece offered a carefree existence, the sponge trade underpinned the economy, the sun shone, the sea was a vibrant blue and life was pretty OK.

Photo: @davidgilmour The author in Hydra with her novel

The story is a meander through the lives of many people who come and go. It has a dreamy quality surely echoing the tenet of the title and the sonorous waves lapping the island. In one way this is a sublime read and in another I sense that the author, having chosen to set a group of real life, eccentric, larger-than-life and ebullient people at the heart of her story, somehow slightly lost her nerve.  It’s terrifically full of colour and location but the setting, for me – and how can I even be even saying this as a TripFiction reviewer – almost overshadows the narrative. The locale is rendered in such vibrant and forceful terms that it demands an equally powerfully drafted narrative to balance it. That balance, for me, wasn’t quite achieved and the story couldn’t quite hold its own. But this is nevertheless a very readable and engrossing novel, it has received a huge amount of glowing reviews pre-publication, so do give it a go! You will immediately want to make a beeline for Hydra (when you can travel again!)

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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