Bella Pollen’s The Summer of the Bear was an absolutely incredible novel. I read all 430 pages in a matter of three days, so enraptured was I with the story Pollen beautifully wove out of the tragic suicide of Nicky Fleming, an English diplomat stationed with his wife Letitia and three children, Georgie, Alba, and Jamie, in Berlin.
Nicky’s sudden death sends Letty and her children to the Hebrides, the sparsely populated Scottish islands where Letty grew up. Though she imagines a return to her childhood home and favored relaxation spot will help heal the wounds of widowhood, Letty realizes that her decision was rather brash and potentially at odds with the wishes of her grieving children. Nonetheless, Letty wallows in grief at her seaside home, damaging her relationship with her children in the process. But thorough investigations from the British Embassy into Nicky’s death force Letty to question the circumstances of and motives behind her husband’s suicide. As Letty grows more suspicious of the man she thought she knew so well, she further distances herself from the children who hold the greatest potential as sources of both happiness and truth about Nicky.
For teenaged Georgie, the Fleming’s stint in the Hebrides is simply transitory as she hopes to attend college in London and enter the world of dating and intimacy. A classic middle child, difficult and stubborn Alba incessantly picks upon both of her siblings. No one is spared her harsh criticism and biting sarcasm, until Georgie crafts a deal with Alba that she cannot refuse, one that protects Jamie from Alba’s meanness for an entire month. And young Jamie stumbles through the world of fatherlessness, lost in his imagination and inability to process the death of Nicky. So confused is Jamie by the euphemisms employed by family and friends to protect the youngest Fleming child from the reality of his father’s death that he begins to question whether his father truly is dead, if he can return from heaven, and what elaborate mission has kept Nicky from his family for so long. But all of the children demonstrate a great fondness for their late father, from the imaginative stories he told his children to the fascinating way he had of making them each feel like his special favorite, Nicky was a very attentive and present father despite his high-powered political post.
The entire story is situated against the tense backdrop of the Cold War, the bleak environment of Scotland’s northernmost islands, and the mystery of a grizzly bear who has supposedly inhabited the island. Though there have been numerous sightings by island natives prior to the Fleming’s arrival, it is Jamie who continues to hold out hope that the grizzly is still prowling the land long after the rest of the Hebrideans reason that the bear must have perished. And the cast of island characters are themselves a wellspring of great intrigue, each one presented with their own unique story and all of them devout believers of island legends that frame the Flemings’ story.
Jamie’s imaginative and colorful theories about the fate of both his father and the bear are juxtaposed with the unapologetically realistic portrayal of an insensitive Cold War era investigation into the lives of a grieving family. The Summer of the Bear seamlessly transitions through the various Fleming family members’ anguish; from Jamie’s immersion into a fantasy world built upon reticence and denial to Georgie’s desire to break free from the bonds of her sorrowful family, from Alba’s hardened facade which requires constant reminders to be maintained to Letty’s anger as the facts reveal Nicky to have been an incomprehensibly different man from the one she knew. Pollen demonstrates an enviable talent for storytelling and construction, for balancing the stuff of childlike imagination and more mature and weighty content.
What’s even more, Pollen’s novel isn’t heavy or daunting. Though the story itself is far from lighthearted, the narrative is engaging and as easy to navigate as a bestselling beach read. Pollen has a way with words, crafting the most tantalizingly apt descriptions in her own mellifluous but intricate style. The world of the Hebrides and the Fleming family tragedy is one that Pollen quickly reels readers into almost without their knowledge. I found myself completely hooked by the time I reached page 10 and surprised to see that I had made it nearly a quarter of the way through in a single sitting.
The Summer of the Bear is not to be missed and I imagine that Pollen will continue to be source of great fiction in the future. This novel reminded me a lot of the Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna and I can easily see Pollen finding her place amongst writers of Kingsolver’s distinction. I only wish that I could get my hands on one of Pollen’s four prior novels, especially Hunting Unicorns which was a bestseller, so as to spoil myself with another spectacular read by one of my new favorites Ms. Bella Pollen.