It’s the early 1960’s and teenager Erica Hart has just lost her mother, her anchor. Discovering that she has been left a small nest egg, and surprisingly also a car, she is keen to leave her home and her abusive, aggressive father. Soon after her mother’s passing, a parcel arrives at the house addressed to her late mother from the writer Charmian Clift, who Erica remembers meeting some years earlier when she was just a child. But this propels her to leave England with her brother Bobby and his friend Jimmy, who also happens to be her boyfriend.
Bobby displays similar character traits to his father, constantly treating Erica with disdain and derision and she does her best to shake him off and ignore his many criticisms and barbs. They arrive on the island of Hydra which has become the haven for writers, artists and poets, and this is where Erica seeks out the respite she needs from the turmoil she is feeling. To be honest, I’m not sure this would be the place to go if one was looking for calm, as the enclave they find themselves in is one of its own tension.
The author cleverly weaves fiction with fact, interspersing Erica’s world with real-life characters: Charmian and her husband George; Axel Jensen and his wife Marianne Ihlen and Canadian Leonard Cohen who arrives into an already established colony and creates upheaval on a grand scale. Polly Samson masterfully blends the underlying currents of conflict and hostility with the openly strained relationships that continue, seemingly unaffected by all that is rippling under the surface.
In between the adults and their bohemian lifestyle, their children frolic … oblivious to the growing stormclouds and how the behaviour of their supposedly more mature care-givers will affect them in later years. They’re literally embroiled in a den of iniquity and they don’t even know it! They live a joyful life of freedom, and they enjoy it while they can before adulthood claims them.
Erica herself, without even realising it, is searching for that mother figure that is now missing from her life. She finds it in Charmian, who she admits she has a ‘crush’ on. Charmian bestows the maternal love on her that she so desperately needs, dispensing advice and a perspective on life that will propel Erica on to a future that she previously was not able to consider, having nobody to turn to in order to share her hopes and dreams with. Hydra has been a ‘pause’ for her … a mere ‘timeout’ before returning to reality.
But for those who were there during that heady time, they discover that it is not something easily forgotten and when they gaze off into the far horizon, it doesn’t take long before they are drawn by those distant memories.
This is a beautiful, nostalgic 4-star read. The author paints a vivid picture that propels you into a place that (especially now) readers will wish they could visit. She transports you there through here stunning depictions of a place and time that were iconic and that will always hold a special place in history, especially for those who hold the creative space dear to their hearts.
Polly Samson is the author of two short story collections and two previous novels. Her work has been shortlisted for prizes, translated into several languages and has been dramatized on BBC Radio 4. She has written lyrics to four number one albums and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
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