The Summer of the Bear

The Summer of the Bear

by Bella Pollen

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Overview

Best-selling author Bella Pollen’s imaginative new novel received stellar reviews in hardcover and was chosen as a Richard & Judy Book Club title.

In 1980 Germany, Cold War tensions are once again escalating and a mole is suspected in the British Embassy. So when the clever diplomat Nicky Fleming dies suddenly and suspiciously, it’s convenient to brand him the traitor. But was his death an accident, murder, or suicide? As the government investigates Nicky's death, his wife relocates with their three children to a remote Scottish island hoping to save what remains of their family. But the isolated shores of her childhood retreat only intensify their distance between them, and it is the brilliant and peculiar youngest child, Jamie, who alone holds on to the one thing he’s sure of: his father has promised to return and he was a man who never broke a promise.

When Jamie sets off to explore the island with his teenage sisters, they discover a tamed grizzly bear has been marooned on shore, hiding somewhere among the seaside caves. Jamie believes the bear may have a strange connection to his father, and as he seeks the truth, Nicky's story begins revealing itself in unexpected ways.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802145888
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/12/2012
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 680,571
Product dimensions: 5.58(w) x 8.04(h) x 1.24(d)

About the Author


Bella Pollen is a writer and journalist who has contributed to a wide variety of publications including Vogue, The Observer, and The Sunday Telegraph. She is the author of four other novels including Midnight Cactus and Hunting Unicorns, which was a “Best Summer Read” on The Richard & Judy show.

Visit Bella's website at bellapollen.com

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

London

Traffic or no traffic, weather good or bad, the journey from London to the island always took three days. For the children to be confined with one another for such a lengthy period of time seemed nothing short of collective punishment and Georgie decided she'd rather be strapped to the roof rack along with the rest of the suitcases and take her chances with the rain and low-level bridges than feel the evil eye of her younger sister bore into her shoulder blades for one minute longer.

It felt like they were one of those eighteenth-century families being transported to Australia for the theft of a single plum, but at least Australia would be an improvement on what they had been condemned to: an unknown future with only the menagerie of gulls and a few lonely sheep for company. Last night, when her mother had turned on the television to check the weather forecast, Michael Fish had staked his usual ground in front of a map of the United Kingdom.

'A cool summer's evening, followed by a moderately warm day,' he pronounced, moving a couple of plastic suns onto southern England. 'And this band of high pressure will mean sun as well for the Midlands and the north.' He tossed a few more stickers towards Liverpool. By the time he had finished, the entire map of the British Isles had been covered by cheerful yellow suns – the entire map, that is, except for one spot. A solitary grey sticker marred the United Kingdom's perfect day, a cloud symbol hovering like a storm warning over their future, and beneath it was the exact place to which they were heading.

Her mother had been right about leaving early, though. There were hardly any cars on the road. A sudden flash caught her eye and Georgie turned to see the old Peugeot's reflection in the corrugated metal wall of an industrial building.

As long as she could remember, they'd had a variation on this kind of car. 'Always drive a Peugeot,' she could hear her father saying. 'Africa's favourite car! They're built in developing countries and have brought affordable transport to millions.' Quite why her father still felt obliged to sanction Africa's favourite car after they had moved to Bonn, she didn't know. Compared to the sleeker Opel and brand-new sedans driven by some of his embassy colleagues, the 1967 Standard 404 Saloon was something of an embarrassment, with its fin-tailed rear lights and jerry-built roof rack. Her father adored it, though, referring to it as a faithful old thing and complaining fondly about its arthritic gearstick and stubborn clutch as though it were a decrepit great-uncle who had been graciously allowed to live with the family and was now expected to piggyback them around the city limits in return for board and keep.

Anyway, it wasn't Germany that the reflection of the Peugeot reminded her of. Something about the dirty white paint with all those blocks of suitcases piled on the roof made her think of Liberia, her father's first posting. Exchange the car for a cart, add in the lines of people and the bundles of clothing and they could be any refugee family, fleeing from country to country, exchanging one life for another. Packing, sailing, driving, unpacking. She had never minded the idea that life was something you could gather up and take with you. That was the way it was in the diplomatic service and she had become used to the edge of impermanence it gave. Georgie closed her eyes. When she had been nine, her father had been posted back to London. They had sailed out of the Gulf of Guinea, all their belongings lashed and secured in the hold beneath them. When the packing cases had been unloaded into their new quarters, there had not been an inch of floor space left. Now all their worldly goods fitted onto a single roof rack. If you started with a boat and shrank to a car, then by the law of diminishing returns, what came next?

'Are you all right, darling?' Her mother was looking over at her.

'Fine.' She faked a smile before turning back to the window.

They were crossing the canal now, zigzagging up through the tree-lined streets of Little Venice into north London. Georgie took in a dozen moving images. A documentary of a city, blinking open its eyes at first light. A rubbish truck churned by the side of the road. A taxi driver queued for tea at a greasy cafe. Under the overhang of a garage, a security guard smoked a cigarette. People shadowed the streets here and there. What were they doing? Where were they going? Who was lost and who had a purpose? A city was such a mysterious place. All those closed doors, all those lives grinding away behind them. And who could say what might happen to turn them upside down? Somewhere right now, two people might be falling in love; the first spark might catch in a factory fire; a man could fly into a rage, pick up a paperweight and kill his wife. There was no telling who was happy and who was sad. And, like her, there was no knowing what secrets people were being forced to hide.

CHAPTER 2

It annoyed Alba that people accused her of hating things indiscriminately. It wasn't true. She had her reasons for feeling the way she did and they were good ones. For example, she despised over-polished furniture, easy-listening music and shiny food, as represented by, say, the glaze on doughnuts or the sweaty sheen of a tomato ring. She resented fish, loathed any form of sentimentality and strongly believed that doors should be kept either open or shut, but never in-between. This short list, selected entirely at random, did not constitute the sum total of Alba's wrath at life. Far from it. Alba incubated a fresh grievance for each day of the week. In fact, if someone cared to ask her – and God knows, she often wished they would – she could dredge up a bona fide irritation for every letter of the alphabet.

Where these prejudices came from she had little idea, yet she recognized them as immutable – steadfast, too, was the scorn she felt for her fellow human beings. Vegetarians, religious fanatics, English teachers, weathermen – at one point or other all these pervs had been in her line of fire. Nevertheless, the person she despised the most, the person who drove her absolutely cjubulunga, the person who was to blame for everything that had happened to their family, if she could only work out precisely how, was, without a shadow of a doubt, her brother, Jamie.

There he was now, sitting across from her on the passenger seat. Holy God, what a revolting sight. His breath smelt sour and the chalky residue of night dribble around his mouth turned her insides.

'Retard,' she whispered.

Jamie was rubbing his legs. Long smooth strokes, up and down, up and down, up and —

'Stop doing that!'

'Doing what?'

'Fondling your legs.'

'But I'm not touching you.'

'You're annoying me, which is worse.'

'Leave him be, Alba.' Her mother's hand snaked through the divide and connected with Jamie's knee. 'He's just tired.'

Alba scowled. This was it. Exactly it. Excuses were always being made for her brother. In her opinion, if he wasn't babied so much, he'd be obliged to grow up. Jamie was nearly nine years old but still unable to read or write and the only reason he could count to ten was because he'd been born with the visual aid of fingers and thumbs.

'Retard,' she mouthed at him as soon as their mother's attention was reclaimed by the road.

Alba enjoyed using the word 'retard'. In fact, Jamie aside, she enjoyed the company of actual retards. As a punishment for incinerating her games kit the previous term, the school had sentenced her to weekend community service and given her the choice of visiting old people or playing games with the mentally ill. Alba couldn't stand old people, with their tottering gait and rotting gums. She was repulsed by the milky colostomic smell hovering about their skin, let alone the sparse, duck-down hair, which gave the impression of trying to distance itself as far as possible from their scalps. Old people had been born a long time ago and understood nothing of the world she inhabited. Retards, on the other hand, turned out to be a lot of fun: jolly and uncomplicated, impervious to insult and physically game for as many rounds of 'What's the time, Mr Wolf?' as Alba cared to make them play. It was like having a group of friendly, pliable trolls to order about and Retard Round-Up, as she dubbed it, became a fixture for the rest of the school term. Jamie, however, was not a pliable, friendly troll. He was stupid, spoilt and whiny beyond endurance.

'Jamie,' she bellowed. 'You're doing it again.'

'I'm not,' he gasped.

'You are.'

'My legs hurt.'

'So what?'

'Rubbing them makes them feel better.'

'I don't care.' She fashioned her thumb and forefinger into a pincer.

'Ow,' he cringed in anticipation. 'Stop it.'

But Alba had no intention of stopping. Every slap and pinch was a reflex born of her irritation and for every one successfully delivered, she felt that much better.

'Retard,' she mouthed for the third time.

'Alba, for goodness' sake!' Now it was Georgie who turned round. 'Just be nice.'

'What's so good about being nice?' she retorted, then, when no one responded, added, 'Dada was nice to everyone and look where it got him.'

'Where?' Jamie asked, immediately alert.

'Alba!' her mother hissed.

'Alba, shhh.' Georgie threw a meaningful glance towards her brother.

'Oh, for God's sake!' Though gratified by the reaction, Alba was aggravated nonetheless. How predictable. It was always Jamie everyone worried about – as if he had somehow acquired sole rights to the family's grieving. What about her? Why did no one seem to care how she felt? Anger rose up through her stomach like milk on the boil. She was sick of being shushed before she had finished. She was sick of half-truths and unspoken truths and all the lame excuses in between. She didn't believe in God, she didn't believe in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy and she was damned if she'd believe any of the other lies that parents told their children.

CHAPTER 3

It wasn't that he didn't have the vocabulary to fight back – Jamie Fleming's vocabulary was far more sophisticated than that of most boys his age – but Alba unbalanced him. She turned him into a juggler with too many balls, a pobble with a mass of toes.

'Store your words, then. Keep them in your head,' Nicky Fleming advised his son. 'Think of them as your secret army and one day you will be able to do battle with your sister.' Jamie liked the analogy, but oh, what an unruly Dad's Army of words they were. Stationed safely in his head, they kept themselves in an orderly line, ready for duty. But as soon as he gave the command to go, it was as if an internal siren had been triggered. However much he implored them not to panic, the words stumbled and butted up against each other in their haste to leave and by the time they left his mouth were in too chaotic a state to be of any use.

Alba aside, verbal communication didn't give him significant difficulties. Books and newspapers were a different matter. Jamie Fleming appeared to suffer a form of blindness, an inability to see patterns in words. As he stared at them on the page, instead of joining together to form sentences, they separated into a haphazard collection of jottings which, for all the sense they made to him, might have been Braille or Morse code or birdsong.

Then there were the bodily manifestations of his 'condition'. It was as though Jamie's internal wiring had been connected to a faulty electrical socket. Physically his timing was sporadic, his reflexes sluggish. Bats and balls fell regularly through his fingers – but if the sports field was a minor skirmish, the dinner table was a war zone. In Jamie's uncoordinated little digits, knives and forks managed to point themselves any which way except towards his plate. As with most eight-year-olds, he found that food was loath to make the precarious journey from spoon to mouth without first detouring to his lap, or parking itself in rebellious gobs on his chin.

'You are repellent,' Alba would shout at him. 'You are useless. You are nugatory!'

'What does "nugatory" mean?' Jamie had taught himself to collect words the way other boys jotted down train numbers and he was always up for a new one, however personally insulting.

'Who cares? Just say it.'

'I am nugatory,' he repeated obediently.

If Jamie sometimes felt his home life was hell, it was still a big improvement on school. There, each hour promised its own level of purgatory. He was the worst on the playing field, remedially the worst in class. The teachers attributed his learning difficulties to middle-class stupidity. Jamie Fleming, everyone privately agreed, was just plain dumb. Even Georgie, his chief protector, accepted his lack of intellect as a sad fact and told him it didn't matter. Only his parents stood fast, taking him to doctor after doctor in the hope that one might hold the key to unlock their child's ability to read and write.

'Of course there's nothing wrong with you,' his father reiterated after every specialist's appointment. 'It's just that your brain hasn't been properly switched on yet.'

'Oh no, you're quite wrong, Dada,' Jamie said, 'my brain is switched on all the time.' He grabbed his father's hand and placed it on the top of his head. 'Can't you feel it? It's humming.'

Jamie knew he wasn't stupid, whatever anyone said. Even as he committed the word 'nugatory' to memory, he could feel his brain growing like one of those miracle carwash cloths that boasted a capacity of ten times its size when immersed in water. How he longed for his family to understand the scale of his thoughts. They were big and grown-up but, without the ability to articulate them, he was destined to converse only with himself. His war of words frustrated him almost as much as it worried his parents. What if he could never read a book or write a story. Much as he enjoyed it in there, he couldn't live in his head forever.

'Don't worry. There's a word for what you are,' his father told him, and whispered it into his ear.

'Is that good?'

'Well, I think so,' his father said, 'but then I happen to be one too.'

But if Nicky Fleming's polymath abilities were put to use in the everyday world, Jamie's breadth of knowledge became the building blocks of a convoluted fantasy life, one peopled by an astonishing number of characters all of whom were interested in everything he had to say. Alba might call him what she liked but inside his head he was a brilliant raconteur, a storyteller capable of threading together titbits of conversation, snippets from the paper – anything that fired his imagination – into a sweeping plot of which, coincidentally, he was almost always the hero.

In Jamie's world anything was possible. Wolves spoke as men and goblins ruled governments. Waterfalls flowed upwards and inanimate objects made conversation with him whenever they pleased. And if his parents encouraged him, they were not alone. Children's heads are a terrible mess of truth and lies, receptacles for conflicting information, fragments of facts and half-formed opinions. Misinformation is every parent's tool for shielding their offspring from the adult domain. Real life, with its grubby ethics and rank injustice, is not considered a suitable place for a child to inhabit. From birth, Jamie's baby cage had been padded with fairy tale and strung above a safety net of make-believe, no clues handed out as to what should be accepted as absolute or dismissed as whimsy. Even time had been warped and truncated – 'just a minute', 'the other day', the concept of 'soon' – a whole lexicon of vagueness invented to further smudge the lines of an already blurred world.

There were so many clues that the crossed wires in Jamie Fleming's head would not spontaneously unravel. Somebody should have noticed but nobody was paying attention. If only they had been. If only his family had understood the strange workings of that clever little mind, they would have watched him so much more carefully.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Summer of the Bear"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Bella Pollen.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Summer of the Bear: A Novel 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
Summer of the Bear begins with the death of Nicky Flemming. Working in the British Embassy in Germany, his accidental fall from the top of the embassy seems anything but accidental. The government agents assigned to investigate suspect suicide, saying that Nicky could have been a mole who was about to be caught. Stunned and prfoundly confused his wife, Letty, flees with their 3 children to her childhood summer home on an island in Scotland. There Letty falls into a numb cycle of trying to pretend she is ok while her mind runs constantly over the past looking for clues to Nicky's secret life. Meanwhile her children struggle too, Georgie with an overwhelming sense of guilt, Alba with pure and furious anger, and brilliant but simple Jamie with confusion. If his dad is lost it means he'll return one day, but why is it taking so long? In the end a crisis on the island along with an escaped bear brings everything to a head, revealing the children's struggles and answering the questions surrounding Nicky's death in a wholly unexpected way. More than anything I found Summer of the Bear to be a meditation on grief, the many differnt ways that people exerience it and how we can eventually come to live with it. Letty's sense of having been betrayed, Jamie's total denial that his dad is gone, Alba's unmitigated fury at everything, and Georgie's quiet guilt all show us the full range of emotions at the loose of a loved one. Set against the lonely and isolated backdrop of the island you can fully feel the hole Nicky has left in the life of his family. The mystery of his death adds some spark and helps keep the story moving forward and the fantasy of the bear helps it move to a conclusion. The story stalls a bit in the middle but picks up at the again with a great ending.
clanbryce More than 1 year ago
I am embarrassed by how long this novel sat in my Nook queue before I read it. Once I started it , I could not put it down. The story grabs you in the prologue. If you're looking for wild sex scenes and thrills-a-minute, keep searching. The raw emotions in this story will stay with you long after you have finished the book.
QueenMummy More than 1 year ago
The Summer of the Bear was amazingly intricate, deeply spiritual for me. Bella Pollan chose to describe an original cast of characters with such quirks that they could only be real. A family wholly dedicated to their dear father whose tragic death is the motivation for all that they do this one sad summer. A precious little boy's dogged devotion to his "Dada" and confusion over his loss is almost too painful. And then there are the two sisters, also struggling, each at turning points in their own lives, without the help of their deeply confused and grieving mother. This a masterpiece of interwoven stories that culminates with the beauty of simple trust and absolute beleif. I will remember this book for a long time!
Ragingsenior More than 1 year ago
I loved the story since you never really know what is next. The vocabulary is interesting also. It is a good read being laid up. I am healing with a fracture so much remain off my leg, etc. I read it on my Nook. The characters are interesting and believable. Set on the Scottish island it also gives on a sense of place. My only regret was that it wasn't longer since I grew attached to the characters. I love long books.
frisbeesage on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Summer of the Bear begins with the death of Nicky Flemming. Working in the British Embassy in Germany, his accidental fall from the top of the embassy seems anything but accidental. The government agents assigned to investigate suspect suicide, saying that Nicky could have been a mole who was about to be caught. Stunned and prfoundly confused his wife, Letty, flees with their 3 children to her childhood summer home on an island in Scotland. There Letty falls into a numb cycle of trying to pretend she is ok while her mind runs constantly over the past looking for clues to Nicky's secret life. Meanwhile her children struggle too, Georgie with an overwhelming sense of guilt, Alba with pure and furious anger, and brilliant but simple Jamie with confusion. If his dad is lost it means he'll return one day, but why is it taking so long? In the end a crisis on the island along with an escaped bear brings everything to a head, revealing the children's struggles and answering the questions surrounding Nicky's death in a wholly unexpected way.More than anything I found Summer of the Bear to be a meditation on grief, the many differnt ways that people exerience it and how we can eventually come to live with it. Letty's sense of having been betrayed, Jamie's total denial that his dad is gone, Alba's unmitigated fury at everything, and Georgie's quiet guilt all show us the full range of emotions at the loose of a loved one. Set against the lonely and isolated backdrop of the island you can fully feel the hole Nicky has left in the life of his family. The mystery of his death adds some spark and helps keep the story moving forward and the fantasy of the bear helps it move to a conclusion. The story stalls a bit in the middle but picks up at the again with a great ending.
celticlady53 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen is a very interesting story about a family dealing with the loss of the father in the family. The novel takes place on the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, in the summer of 1979.This story is told in alternating chapters by the members of the Fleming family and by the circus bear. Yes the bear in this story has thoughts. The circus bear escapes from his handler while swimming in the ocean. Georgie, the eldest daughter feels that she is responsible for the death of her father, Alba the middle child hates everyone, especially her younger brother Jamie. Jamie does not believe that his father is dead because his father promised to return, he thinks that his father was a spy and hopes that the bear, if he can find him, may be able to help him find out the truth. Other parts of the story are told in flashbacks mostly by the mother Letty and Georgie. Letty remembers how she and Nick met and Georgie about the time she went with her father to Germany.A tense, engrossing, magical story on the island that Letty grew up on and some of the local characters that live on the island. A very enjoyable read.
Beamis12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
3 1/2 but a somewhat magical, albeit at times slow paced book. When their father who is with the diplomatic corp. falls to his death, letty and the three children retreat to the Hebrides in Scotland. Jamie, the eight year old and is a character I loved, cannot distinguish letters and words, but is intelligent nontheless. He believes in things that are magical and loves bears. Good read told by alternating viewpoints, but Jamie makes the book come alive.
tammydotts on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Fleming family retreats to a family cottage in the Outer Hebrides following the death of Nick Fleming in 1980s West Germany. Accusations of treason and a suicide note from the diplomat lead his wife to question how well she knew her husband while her two daughters struggle to define themselves and her young son leaves clues for his ¿lost¿ father to find the family. As the Flemings arrive on the island, a tamed bear escapes from his owner and hides out in a sea cave. A strange connection forms between bear and boy as Bella Pollen weaves a sleepy sort of magic in The Summer of the Bear.The novel moves at a well measured pace: slow but designed to capture readers. Pollen creates a world to spend time in. When she brings the main plot threads together, it¿s with a feeling of moving the characters along to whatever waits for them after the last page is turned.Pollen¿s chapters alternate perspectives among the Fleming family. Letty pieces together evidence of Nick¿s treason while shutting herself away from her children. Georgia, the older daughter, accompanied her father on a trip to East Berlin and knows something about the secrets he was keeping. Alba, the middle child, uses anger to keep her feelings at bay. Jamie is the special one; his mind doesn¿t work the way it should and it takes him a long while to understand his father isn¿t lost, but dead. The characters could be written easily as stereotypes. The two daughters struggle to emerge as fully realized characters, with only Georgia achieving that successfully. Letty and Jamie, however, are very real. Jamie¿s mental disabilities ¿ which are never categorized clearly ¿ could have made him too precious, but Pollen grounds his differences in having Jamie just be a child, fighting with his sister and looking for proof that his bear is real.Jamie and his father were supposed to go to the circus on the day Nick died. Among the attractions was a bear act, and when Jamie sees a truck advertising a performing bear on the family¿s trip to the island, he decides the bear will help him find his father.The bear feels a connection to Jamie as well, and Pollen checks in with the bear in short chapters that may be too anthropomorphic for some readers but can be explained by the bear¿s time with humans. Pollen stops short of delivering magic realism, but doesn¿t offer explanations for everything either.The Summer of the Bear has some flaws. The answers to Nick¿s treasonous behaviors seem like an afterthought as the novel increases tension about Jamie and the bear. What Nick may or may not have done gives the other characters something else to do. An environmental MacGuffin near the end of the novel provides an excuse for Letty to leave the family cottage and not much else.But the flaws are minor or, at least, don¿t negate the engaging story Pollen tells. The Summer of the Bear is a novel to relish and to mourn when the last page is read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Summer of the Bear had me in its grip and didn't let go. A combination of family love, loss, and a thrilling espionage. The mystic bear became quite a metaphor for our longing and wishes. Intricately woven together in a world difficult to put down. I read it in one day. Bravo! That's a tale well told.
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