What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Story of a Boy and a Bear -- and an Unbearable Loss

When Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen opens, it's the summer of 1980, and Letty is driving north to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with her three children, Georgiana, Alba and Jamie, but without her husband, Nicky. It takes only a few short chapters for the reader to learn that Nicky is dead -- just how he died, however, is the puzzle around which this novel ostensibly revolves.

But while Nicky's death, and the context for it, may make this sound like a mystery novel, it really isn't. Instead, it's the story of how terrible grief devastates families, driving members apart. Letty fears her husband has killed himself, or that his death wasn't an accident, and retreats into herself, leaving her children to cope on their own. Georgie is tormented by memories of a trip to Berlin with her father shortly before his death, a trip that MI-6 agents later interrogated her about at their home in Bonn. Alba is just angry at everyone, but especially Jamie, the youngest of the clan, for what she views as his simple-mindedness and lack of subtlety. But Jamie, who struggles with learning disabilities of some kind as well as incredibly literal mind (when his sister tells him sarcastically to look up Heaven in the Yellow Pages, he does just that -- and shows up on the door of a thinly-disguised brothel searching for his father) simply won't believe his father his dead. Perhaps he's off somewhere, on a secret mission -- after all, hadn't everyone told him that his father was "lost", and wasn't he really a spy?

Over the course of their summer at the family home in the Hebrides, all four survivors must find a way to cope and move on. Their conflicts are set against the backdrop of life in the still-remote community, under increasing siege from the modern world, and their memories of the diplomatic world that they have left behind them. And in the background, there is the bear: escaped from its owner, the grizzly has taken refuge in a cave. Jamie becomes increasingly fixated on finding the bear, associating it closely with his father. Is it possible that the spirit of the lost bear and his lost father could somehow combine...?

This is a beautifully-written novel, one that captures the emotional impact of a devastating loss and the uncertainties of childhood and adolescence without a false note anywhere. Jamie, in particular, is a heartbreaking character: the adults in his world don't understand him; Alba and his peers bully him ruthlessly and yet his insights and thoughts are clear and simple. The climax, in which Pollen brings together the multiple threads of the plot, offering a solution to the mystery of the bear and the mystery of Nicky's death, may feel contrived, but only when looking back on it after finishing the book. At the time, it just feels like the only proper way to wrap up the novel.

I devoured this book, one page after another, and was bitterly disappointed when I finished -- but only because I didn't have more to read. An impressive novel, crafted from the author's own knowledge of the Hebrides and the real-life escape of a bear the same summer in which the novel is set. I'll be looking out for more novels by Bella Pollen, and recommend this one whole-heartedly. I wouldn't go so far as to call this Literature with a capital "L", but it's an above-average novel with a plot and characters that will captivate and haunt you, and I'm giving it 4.6 stars.

Full disclosure: I obtained e-galleys of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.com.


  1. Thanks for posting this review! I hadn't heard of the book, and I'm always looking for books set on cold weather islands.

  2. Great review! I love the 4.6 stars.