Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bella Pollen: Summer of the Bear

I first encountered Bella Pollen when my daughter gave me a proof copy of Midnight Cactus a few years ago.  I loved it and went on to read Hunting Unicorns (she has wonderful titles).  Then I just forgot about her, or perhaps her work didn't cross my line of vision.

But then I saw Summer of the Bear on a book blog and bought it as soon as I realised it was available on Kindle.  I felt slightly wary when I saw it had been a Richard and Judy book choice - I'm often disappointed by over-hyped books - but the first chapter set my mind at rest.  This book is beautifully written and characterised and I completely lost myself in it.  Yes, I suppose it is classifiable as 'women's romantic fiction', but only in the widest possible terms.  It's a very literary novel that should appeal to both sexes.

It's set during the cold war - the jittery era of Philby, Burgess and Maclean.  As the book opens a middle aged woman, Letty, recently bereaved, is taking her children to spend the summer (and possibly the rest of their lives) on the remote scottish island where she spent her own childhood summers.  Her husband, a high-flying diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, has - apparently - committed suicide by throwing himself off the Embassy roof.  There's a suspicion that he may have been a traitor.  Like a wounded animal, Letty is going to ground in the one place she feels safe.   Her three children know very little about their father's death and their mother is so numbed by grief she seems barely aware of their existence.  A Hebridean island isn't exactly where they want to be.  The teenage daughter, Georgie, is ready to fly the nest and missing her life in Bonn;  the middle daughter, Alba, an angry sociopath, is determined to make everyone's life hell as punishment for something she can't even identify;  and Jamie, the youngest, autistic, son is just trying to make sense of life and death.

The narrative is told from each point of view - Bella Pollen is able to get inside the heads of the children with absolute conviction.  The only parts I didn't like were the short sections from the bear's point of view, which I felt were unnecessary.  The bear - an object of the boy's fantasy, connected in some obscure way with his father - has escaped from a travelling circus and Jamie sets out to track him down.  (The escape of the bear is a real event that happened when Bella Pollen was staying in the Outer Hebrides as a child and she has built a whole fiction around the incident.)

This is a serious, very moving story.  I felt alternately exasperated and deeply sorry for the incompetent Letty and constantly anxious for the family she has lost her grip on.  All the children seem at risk and the bear prowls around the edge of the story like Frankenstein's monster. Will it survive starvation and the hunter's guns?  Will the family survive?  At the end of the book you begin to believe that they will.


  1. The embassy was actually in Bonn. This book was set during the Cold War before German reunification.

  2. Sorry - Freudian slip when writing the review from memory. The novel is a very good evocation of the period. I do wish you'd left your name though - I don't mind having typos pointed out and it would be good to know who to thank.