It is 1980 in Bella Pollen’s The Summer of the Bear, and the Outer Hebrides, a remote island chain off the northern coast of Scotland, has some unexpected visitors. Letty Fleming and her three children are there to mourn the death of their husband and father, Nick, and a domesticated bear has escaped from his owner and made the sea caves his temporary home. The ways in which these characters cope, find solace and even help each other survive are the unexpected pleasures in this imaginative novel.
Nick had a posting in the diplomatic corps and the family was living in Germany when he fell to his death from the roof of their apartment. With suspicions of a leak in the department, his death leaves many unanswered questions: Was it an accident, murder or suicide? Even worse, was Nick a traitor?
A former resident of the Hebrides, Letty hopes that returning to its safe embrace will be beneficial for her and her children as they try to piece their lives back together, but the isolation of the island reinforces each person’s loneliness. Instead of coming together, the family fractures even more, with Letty hovering ineffectually in the background, alternately digging into her husband’s past and taking to her bed in periods of unrestrained grief.
The portrayal of the Fleming children is the novel’s greatest strength. The dutiful oldest daughter Georgie tries to make sense of a trip to Berlin she took with her father and the enigmatic events that occurred there. Youngest boy Jamie, in his confusion and sorrow, continues to believe that his father is still alive and that the escaped bear might hold a clue to his current whereabouts. Stuck in the middle is Alba, burning with rage, cruel to her brother and jealous of her sister, and furious with the many ways the world has let her down.
The story of the escaped bear was drawn from an actual event in Pollen’s childhood when a trained animal named Hercules got loose while filming a commercial on the Hebrides. The bear roamed the island the entire summer, adding a dreamlike element to Pollen’s childhood memory. That spark of the unexpected lies at the heart of The Summer of the Bear. Though the novel occasionally suffers from the choppy rhythm resulting from multiple storytellers (even the bear narrates his own chapters), readers will be captivated by Pollen’s characters and the warmth with which her magical tale unfolds.