Saturday, 1 October 2011
I bet the organisers of the Henley Literary Festival could scarcely believe their luck. Of all the weeks to host their five-day event, they’d chosen the glorious last days of summer, when the sun shone, temperatures soared and we all bared our legs again.
Sitting on the terrace at Bix Manor, a pretty country hotel two miles up the road from Henley (above), everything seemed right with the world. I sipped afternoon tea, gazed out across the fields and listened to a journalist I vaguely recognised relating why she’d written a piece about her sex life in one of the morning papers.
I’d booked a ticket to hear Sky TV presenter Kay Burley and writer Bella Pollen discuss their new books. They’re both highly successful in their fields but I was mystified as to why they’d been teamed up. Burley’s first novel is a bonkbuster about a lothario prime minister and the women in his life, while The Summer of the Bear, Pollen’s latest, is set in the Outer Hebrides and tells of three siblings struggling to cope with the loss of their father. The women’s totally different styles were evident by the outfits they’d chosen - Burley wearing a sleeveless silk dress and heels, Pollen clad in jeans and Converse.
But despite the incongruity, it worked a treat. Burley has spent years interviewing the best known politicians and showbiz names in the world on live TV, yet was surprisingly nervous. She admitted that her hands were shaking and that she’s “a novice on the literary circuit.” Not only that, when it came to reading an excerpt from her book, First Ladies, she suddenly panicked that she’d left her glasses outside. Pollen immediately leaned over to offer hers – and Burley’s face lit up with gratitude. In a way the gesture seemed to bond them and after that the event whizzed by in a flash (brilliantly chaired by journalist Philippa Kennedy).
Burley reckoned that her thirty-year TV career was down to “ninety per cent hard work and ten per cent luck.” A single mum, she revealed that her teenage son was starting university that very day – he’s studying politics at the LSE – and that she’d often had to drop everything at the last minute to rush off on stories. She decided to write her novel after being approached to do her autobiography and said she’s “in advanced discussions with Hollywood” about a movie of First Ladies. She's already delivered her second novel, Betrayal, to her publisher. In fact she wrote much of it in the back of a van on the front line in Libya (how impressive is that?) and it’s due out in 2012.
I hadn’t read First Ladies before the talk so when I got home I downloaded it. Hmmm. I don’t want to be mean but it’s not a masterpiece. The plot seems old-hat and the prose surprisingly wooden. During the talk, Burley had talked movingly about her beloved late parents falling in love when they both worked in a cardboard box factory and her “humble beginnings” in Wigan. If she could write a novel based on all that, then I reckon she’d be on to a winner.
Friday, 30 September 2011
The first of my regular Friday book reviews. There'll be a mix of paperbacks and hardbacks, old and new, grown-ups and children's reads - so watch this space every Friday.
Back in the 1980s Bella Pollen was one of Princess Diana’s favourite designers, famed for her sharply-cut jackets in jewel-bright colours.
Then she decided fashion wasn’t for her and switched to writing novels instead. Over the years she’s written about everything from aristocrats to the Arizona desert, but her fifth novel is the compelling story of a family rocked by loss and bereavement during the Cold War.
The Summer of the Bear begins in the summer of 1979, when diplomat Nicky Fleming falls to his death from the roof of the British embassy in Bonn. Struggling to come to terms with her loss and unable to believe whispers that he killed himself after betraying his country, his widow Letty takes their three children back to the desolate Hebridean island where she grew up.
But as Letty seeks to unravel the secrets behind Nicky’s death she’s oblivious to her children’s anguish. At one point she observes that they don’t seem like a family any more – “more like a collection of damaged souls.”
Pollen is brilliant at portraying the bewilderment of the Fleming children. First they have to cope with losing their father, then they’re uprooted to a windswept isle where locals serve up a delicacy of seaweed and boiled milk (ugh) and electricity is considered “a mysterious foreign game recently adopted as the island’s national sport.”
Bookish 17-year-old Georgie is preoccupied with trying to uncover the truth behind her father’s puzzling last trip to East Berlin while her younger sister Alba has become a prickly 14-year-old who’s shockingly spiteful to her siblings.
But it’s eight-year-old Jamie who’s the emotional heart of the book. An adorable little boy who takes everything literally, he believes the father he worshipped is “lost,” not dead, and will eventually return. On the day he died his father had promised to take him to the circus so when a tame grizzly bear escapes from his wrestler owner on the island, Jamie is inextricably drawn to the beast – with calamitous results.
The novel shifts back and forth between East and West Germany and the Outer Hebrides, where Pollen spent her childhood summers. Narrated by each character in turn, including the bear himself, it’s a gentle, haunting tale and highly recommended.
The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (Pan, £7.99)
PS: I’ve just got back from a great talk by Bella Pollen and Kay Burley at the Henley Literary Festival so will blog all about it soon.