García Márquez meets le Carré meets—well, A.A. Milne at times, with hints of William Golding at others.
In her moving, beautifully written fifth novel, Pollen (Midnight Cactus, 2006, etc.) serves up an improbable mix that, on the face, seems as if it shouldn’t work. The main strand of narrative is something out of Cold War thrillerdom (whence le Carré): Letty Fleming’s diplomat husband, posted to Berlin a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, dies there, a victim of accident, murder or suicide—and, as their daughter Georgie notes, “In the matter of her father, the government had boxes to tick and files to close.” But which is it? The British government seems to think that Nicholas Fleming has turned traitor, leaking military secrets to the East Germans, which still doesn’t quite explain who relieved him of his life. A shocked Letty, with children in tow, retreats to the Outer Hebrides to sort things out, while the children attend to their own grief and confusion. In a fine evocation of young reasoning, Pollen has young son Jamie trying to make sense of it all, writing, “This much Jamie knew: his father had suffered an accident. He’d gone away for some time, then somehow—Jamie didn’t fully comprehend how—his father had got lost.” Jamie has a lively mind, even if sister Alba insists on calling him “retard,” and he is quick to spot an unlikely vision, namely a painted grizzly bear on a passing bus. This conjures up a conversation about grizzlies with Dad, an admonition from Mom that “there are no bears in Scotland” and, in good time, some reckonings with the grizzly himself, who is quite a smart and sensitive fellow. Magical realism and totemic bear in place (whence García Márquez and Milne), what remains is for all concerned to sort out the mystery that Nicky’s passing has given them—with a little flash of Lord of the Flies in store for Jamie, intentional homage or no.
A sensitive and literate story told on several levels, all of them believable—if some of them improbable, too.