My thanks to Muswell Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

This is the second volume of memoirs by Australian writer Charmian Clift of the time she and her family spent in Greece (they lived there 14 or more years). The first, Mermaid Singing, was of their time on the island of Kalymnos while this one is of a year in Hydra. I think it is may be a little less than a year—beginning in February and ending in October. Each section is about the events in a particular month.

As the volume opens, we learn the family is in Hydra and in the process of buying a house of their own (When they moved and why Hydra was their choice is not explained). This is expensive at 120 gold pounds (thus taking away nearly all of their savings), but still a large house at this price is something they would never have been able to afford in England. Charmian is at the time expecting her third child. The first part of the book focuses on how they go about buying a house and all the work that is needed to get it in shape before they can move in. By this time, her children Martin and Shane are used to life in Greece, attend school there and play with their new friends. Unlike Kalymnos where Clift and her family were the only foreigners, Hydra has a sizeable community of expats, mostly artists and writers, and a few intellectual hobos as well as drifters and tourists who keep coming in. And while they also have their Greek friends, here their interaction is more with this community. Of these their close friends are Sean (who has come to Hydra to write) and his wife Lola, and artist Henry and his wife Ursula (all pseudonyms). Once the house is ready and the baby is born (an adventure in itself), we move on to their experiences living there, things that go wrong with the house, their interactions with others, and incidents and adventures that befall them. Like in the first volume, there is also a lot of work, with Charmian having to cook, shop, and look after the baby (though she has help) and of course write and George having to write, at times books he does not wish to for that will put food on the table (besides other work like pumping water, and even paiting the house).

This was like the first volume quite an enjoyable read—I liked Clift’s writing a lot and as in the first volume, her descriptions are vivid and her observations keen. We have an assortment of characters in this one, each colourful in their own way—whether it is Henry who must go anywhere for the sake of his art while his wife Ursula wants some stability to Sean who persists in his writing despite many rejections or his portly wife Lola who is warm and welcoming. We have three Swedish young men who are on the island, Toby and Katherine an American couple who are trying to live the ‘Greek’ way, Katharine’s domineering mother, Mrs Knip who comes for a visit to set them straight, and even a film crew which comes to make a movie on the island (and many others). They are all interesting even if not all attractive, but Clift’s (and indeed Mrs Knip’s) observations do make us wonder about them and their motivations. (The movie crew we learn in the introduction by Polly Samson who has written a novel based on Johnston and Clift’s life in Greece were filming Boy on a Dolphin starring Sophia Loren who also came there).   

In the introduction to this volume, Polly Samson mentions that this is much darker than Clift’s first set of memoirs, and this is something that does stand out almost all through. Clift does for the most part enjoy the simple joys of their life in Greece (swimming every day, picnics, and conversations) but there is also understandable frustration with things going wrong with the house often, money being tight, and their responsibilities with the children weighing on them especially in the face of the fact that many of the others there are not struggling just to live and do not have like responsibilities. But yes, her dissatisfactions come to the surface more often, and one can see some disillusionment creeping in and her questioning their choice even though she does enjoy life more or less. Even her observations of the people they interacted with, their friends as well as the drifters and intellectual hobos (who talk of Kierkegaard and Dali among others), sharp though they are, also feel rather cynical. This is very different from the first volume where you could see her amusement with everything and a decided light-heartedness.

But these were still a very interesting read—a peek into life in the artists’ colony of sorts that was on Hydra where there were not only intellectual conversations but also uncertainly, not only about money but even whether they would be allowed to remain in light of the Cyprus crisis. There are a range of experiences from the film crew literally changing the face of the island to an earthquake to daily troubles like drains going wrong, making life rich even if hard.

Once again we have illustrations, this time by Lola/Nancy Dignan but also the newer ones that appeared in the previous volume—these I always enjoy.    

I was really pleased to read these volumes and do see myself visiting them again.

Cover image: Goodreads

My review of Mermaid Singing is here

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Peel Me a Lotus by Charmian Clift

  1. This one sounds more focused on the expatriates, rather than the locals. The cover is equally enticing as the first. Looking forward to enjoying the other illustrations.

    Liked by 1 person

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