An unexplained suicide shapes the lives of the Fleming family in Pollen’s unusual novel, the death of Nicky Fleming defining the days and nights of his wife, Letty, and their three children: Georgie, Jamie and Alba. An accomplished diplomat, Nicky’s jump from the top of the embassy stairwell in Bonn brings his family together and forces them reexamine their lives while staying on a barren Hebridean isle.
Haunted by visions of Nicky's plummeting body, Kitty remembers that just days before his death, her husband had been agitated as though he was burning with some vital news. Nicky packed, sailed, and drove his family all across the world, perpetuating the idea that "life was something you could gather up and take with you." Kitty, left brittle with exhaustion, still can’t quite believe that Nicky is gone, that he is no longer around to take care of everything.
But fate is fate precisely because its outcome cannot be changed. Destined to be an equally adrift family of four, Letty, Georgie, Jamie and Alba are thrown off course, unexpectedly buffeted by the winds of life. Letty’s enduring love of Scotland causes them to seek comfort and solace in their summer home in the northwest of the country, with its smell of wet bracken and the salty wind that echoes with the promises of the Islands to come.
Amid the rain and mist of the notoriously angry Minch, Letty can finally put
the endless bureaucracy of life behind them as she tries to sort through the
mess of Nicky’s diplomatic affairs. Feeling Nicky’s loss in every part of her life,
she shackled by grief and by a restless soul. The gruff, kindly, and weather-beaten inhabitants of Ballan
try to give her comfort while her children are neglected, largely left to their own devices.
The kernel of resentment in Georgie grows stronger, while Jamie’s search for Nicky's
spirit takes him in search of heaven. Recalcitrant Alba surreptitiously takes up smoking while colliding with puberty. The silence between mother and daughter
stretches long and shrill as Pollen builds her themes around Nicky’s hidden history, Jamie and Alba’s rites of passage, the confusion of Georgie’s
desire for a young Paki boy, and Letty's fragility as she embarks on a new phase, finally faced with the real possibility of having to start again.
A missing bear is an effective symbol for Jamie’s lost father as the boy feels the fear and tension,
the confusion and longing bleed slowly from his body. Letty feels Nicky's loss in every part of her life as the nights shackle her with physical inactivity and a restless soul. Clearly Nicky was on some kind of mission. Only his letter
- “there’s something I’ve been keeping from you” - assuages the betrayal lodged deep inside, where lie all the “tiny splinters of misgiving” she’s been trying to suppress over the days, weeks and months.
Although the book is uneven at times, the author excels in her portrait of East Berlin, a tense and paranoid regime of nefarious intent. Also evocative is her portrayal of the Outer Hebrides, always soft and gauzy with mist. The novel revels in the residue of dreams as elements of espionage link the rituals in family life to the cohesiveness of Jamie's logic. Only Jamie's sacrifice can glue this broken family together again in Pollen's touching and emotional story.