The first character you meet in The Summer of the Bear, Brenda Pollen’s engaging and occasionally aggravating fifth novel, is the titular bear. He’s a grand old grizzly who has escaped his trainer during a swim in the sea of Minch off the Outer Hebrides, that wind-whipped clot of islands that dot Scotland’s western coast. He sees his owner beckoning, urging him back to shore, but “a rope was a rope, whoever was tugging on the end of it. So he turned his back on the big man, dove under the salty waters of the Minch and, oblivious to the storm brewing on the horizon, swam on.”
The brewing storm and the bear himself soon hold sway over the Fleming family, who are left reeling when father and husband Nicky, a Cold War-era diplomat, dies in a mysterious fall from the roof of the British embassy in Germany. Did Nicky jump? Was he pushed? And what about the growing whispers that Nicky, charged with keeping track of relations between East and West Germany had, in fact, turned out to be a traitor?
Letty, Nicky’s stunned and grieving widow, gathers together her three children and heads for safe haven in the Outer Hebrides. Alba, the middle child, is in the throes of teen rebellion. She’s got a hell of a cruel streak, one she’s unable and unwilling to control. Alba aims the brunt of her considerable rage at her younger brother, Jamie, a gentle soul with a rich and deep inner life. Jamie seems to have a condition akin to autism, which wreaks havoc with his ability to communicate. The eldest daughter, Georgie, teeters on the brink of adulthood.
On the island, the family unravels. Letty disappears into her grief. Alba gives free rein to her cruelty. Georgie is left alone to deal with her emerging sexuality. Jamie, meanwhile, has taken literally the euphemisms of death and believes his father is, in fact, lost. On the trip from Germany to Scotland, the boy has left his father a series of maps and clues so Nicky can re-join the family. Jamie soon comes to believe his father has taken the form of a bear and is sending him messages.
Pollen tells the tale from each character’s point of view – including the bear’s. She hops back and forth in time, filling in back story as she goes. We see Nicky and Letty’s courtship, follow Alba’s descent into juvenile delinquency, see Georgie’s dissolve into the delight of first love. With bear getting as many chapters as the humans, aware of the Fleming family, wondering and thinking about them, there’s more than a little magical thinking going on.
Though the core of The Summer of the Bear follows the fractured family’s struggles, it’s the Cold War mystery that steals the show. Georgie, who went with her father to East Germany on a diplomatic mission one day, knows a fateful secret. After plodding through much of her tale, Pollen suddenly gets to plotting. Missile ranges appear. Corrupt officials are exposed. Daring recues take place. Everything you ever wanted to know about Jamie is revealed. And yes, the bear is there, right until the end.