Summary (courtesy of GoodReads): It is the summer of 1980. A tamed brown bear finds himself tempted by the lure of freedom and the wild open sea. . . Meanwhile a grieving, broken family arrive on a windswept island in the Outer Hebrides, looking for the time and space to understand the strange, bewildering events that led to the loss of their husband and father.
Letty clings to the island, the place of her birth –hoping it, and the tight community around her, will slowly begin to fill the void she feels within. For how can she ever begin to explain to her children that their diplomat father may have betrayed his country? Georgie, the eldest, has a secret. She knows more about her father's affairs than she can bear to reveal . . . Alba, the middle child, despises many things: over-polished furniture, easy listening music and shiny food. But most of all she hates the fact that everyone seems to be keeping things from her. Jamie, the youngest, accepts his mind doesn’t work in quite the same way as everyone else’s, but what he can’t understand is –if his father is lost, why isn’t anyone else trying to find him?
As the community’s search for the escaped bear intensifies, Jamie finds himself inexplicably drawn towards the beast. But when a storm sweeps across the island, the family once again find themselves facing the worst; and as events converge and mysteries are unearthed, the bear finally discovers his true purpose.
And here's what I thought: Let's try a few words, shall we? Lyrical. Haunting. Provocative. I really enjoyed this story (and actually, was a bit surprised because from the description, I just wasn't sure how it would be). I found the author just pulled me in, weaving the story in and around itself, and keeping me guessing about what was going to happen next. I was sure I knew what might have happened to Nicky (Letty's husband), but then I wasn't sure --- there is a mystery surrounding him, and just when I thought I might know what was going on, something would change. Bella Pollen writes in such a lyrical way --- I just savored certain passages of this book. When she writes about the bear, it's pure poetry in parts. And her pace in this book is so even that when things start to pick up, you almost don't realize it at first, and then you notice you're reading faster and faster. At least, that was my experience.
The characters in this book are so varied -- which means that as you experience the story through them, it's constantly changing (which I like). I don't usually break it down this way, but it's almost easier this way ---
Letty: the mother, whose husband has died in an accident (was it really an accident?). Turns out that she may not have known her husband as well as she thought she did --- which makes dealing with his death even more difficult. Is she likeable? Most of the time, although I sometimes became frustrated with her lack of interest in her children (although I chalked up her attitude to depression).
Georgie: the eldest daughter, she's quiet and somewhat withdrawn. It seems like she's just trying to get through her current situation so she can move on and go away to school, thus escaping the rest of her family. However, just when you think you've got her character sewn up tight, she does something unpredictable.
Jamie: the youngest, he seems a bit ... off. Jamie sees the world in a completely different way than the rest of his family. Is he simple in the head? Hard to say. Jamie definitely has a brain that works differently than most of us.
He is definitely connected to The Bear. At first, when you get the Bear's perspective, it's a bit odd --- but Pollen writes him in a completely believable, bear-like way. But the odd thing is --- is he just a bear? He's definitely not an average bear, and there is a clear connection that he has to Jamie. But is he real? Example: (p. 126) -- But Jamie had already disappeared inside his head. How was it possible? The bear from the museum. The bear on his flyer. The bear waiting for him at the Zirkusplatz the day of his father's accident. And now here he was on the island. His island. his bear.
"Hello, bear," Jamie whispered.
"Hello, Jamie," the bear answered.
Wonder what's going on here? So did I. And no, I'm not telling --- you'll need to read the book. However, I will say that The Bear, as a physical bear, is real. He's described: "The wrestler's grizzly is a hostile bugger, an aggressive beastie." (p. 132). I love the word beastie, by the way.
Alba (I've saved her for last): the middle child, she's completely awful. All the time. She's constantly seething, using her anger to propel herself through the story. When we first meet her in the book, in Chapter 2, it's quite clear that she's always angry or annoyed about something. Example: "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... She resented fish, loathed any form of sentimentality and strongly believed that doors should be kept either open or shut, but never in-between." (p. 9). She seems to take special delight in tormenting Jamie (perhaps because he seems to be so intent on looking up to her and loving her), but she doesn't limit her nastiness to just him; she spreads it around and takes her attitude everywhere. While I didn't like her, I found her to be an interesting character. I will admit to having foul moods on occasion, but the idea of having this much irritation just boiling away constantly is draining just to think of (I don't know how Alba maintains it at the level she does). Alba's definitely a compelling character -- and she makes an unusual sort of foil for the other characters.
Do I have you curious about this book? I certainly hope so. I thought it was a wonderful read.
First sentences: "It was the smell that drove him wild. As though the ocean itself was a tantalizing soup made from the freshest ingredients and he couldn't get enough of it."
Thoughts on the cover: At first, I wasn't sure -- this isn't the average cover art, with a shiny photo and striking font. However, the more I look at it, the more I like it. I like how the bear is an outlined shape, surrounded by swirling images of plants and water. Quite cool, actually.
Please note: I read an uncorrected proof of this book. Thus, any quotes and page numbers may differ from the finalized book.