FRIDAY BOOK REVIEW: The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 30th September 2011

The first of my regular Friday book reviews. There’ll be a mix of paperbacks and hardbacks, old and new, grown-ups and children’s reads – so watch this space every Friday.

Back in the 1980s Bella Pollen was one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers, famed for her sharply-cut jackets in jewel-bright colours.

Then she decided fashion wasn’t for her and switched to writing novels instead. Over the years she’s written about everything from aristocrats to the Arizona desert, but her fifth novel is the compelling story of a family rocked by loss and bereavement during the Cold War.

The Summer of the Bear begins in the summer of 1979, when diplomat Nicky Fleming falls to his death from the roof of the British embassy in Bonn. Struggling to come to terms with her loss and unable to believe whispers that he killed himself after betraying his country, his widow Letty takes their three children back to the desolate Hebridean island where she grew up.

But as Letty seeks to unravel the secrets behind Nicky’s death she’s oblivious to her children’s anguish. At one point she observes that they don’t seem like a family any more – “more like a collection of damaged souls.”

Pollen is brilliant at portraying the bewilderment of the Fleming children. First they have to cope with losing their father, then they’re uprooted to a windswept isle where locals serve up a delicacy of seaweed and boiled milk (ugh) and electricity is considered “a mysterious foreign game recently adopted as the island’s national sport.”

Bookish 17-year-old Georgie is preoccupied with trying to uncover the truth behind her father’s puzzling last trip to East Berlin while her younger sister Alba has become a prickly 14-year-old who’s shockingly spiteful to her siblings.

But it’s eight-year-old Jamie who’s the emotional heart of the book. An adorable little boy who takes everything literally, he believes the father he worshipped is “lost,” not dead, and will eventually return. On the day he died his father had promised to take him to the circus so when a tame grizzly bear escapes from his wrestler owner on the island, Jamie is inextricably drawn to the beast – with calamitous results.

The novel shifts back and forth between East and West Germany and the Outer Hebrides, where Pollen spent her childhood summers. Narrated by each character in turn, including the bear himself, it’s a gentle, haunting tale and highly recommended.

The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (Pan, £7.99)

PS: I’ve just got back from a great talk by Bella Pollen and Kay Burley at the Henley Literary Festival so will blog all about it soon.

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