The Hummingbird and the Bear: novel review

There’s something very interesting about meeting a writer after you’ve read their work, although meeting somebody immediately after reading their novel can be a little disjointing. For years I’ve despaired of readers who have the misguided impression that I am the character(s) I write about. This can be particularly laughable (for me) and galling (for them) when what they’ve been reading is erotica.

And then I did it myself – not as entirely or blindly as my readers sometimes do, but I finished Nicholas Hogg’s The Hummingbird and the Bear just the day before I met him at the launch party for Photo Stories (sorry, but it’s not every day a writer has her work exhibited in the Saatchi offices so I’ll brag for as long as I can). And in talking to him I found that I was beginning to elide the gap between writer and character and look for evidence of Sam Taylor’s life in the biographical details of his creator: Nicholas Hogg.

Sam’s life seems to have struck some reviewers as a little unlikely, but from what I know of city high-flyers, it really isn’t. Raised by a single mother and then with a violent step-father, he becomes one of the many young men who are thrown out of their ‘family’ homes by a man who usurps the role of head of householder without choosing to serve as father. After a few years of roughing it, Sam turns his life around, at least on the material level, and becomes a self-made man.

But the self-made man, with a superb standard of living, ‘perfect’ girlfriend and every possible advantage, is unmade when he meets a woman whom he cannot resist and who can’t resist him.

From the moment Sam and Kay meeting at a wedding they are compelled towards each other, regardless of risk. For Sam the risk is the collapse of his beautiful, but precarious lifestyle but for Kay the risks are greater: she’s already married and to a powerful man who doesn’t like losing anything, least of all his wife.

As the story unfolds we see similarities between Sam and Kay – both have fracture lines in their family histories that they have concealed but which bring them together in a mutual and ultimately destructive love affair. The collapse of their fake lives is set against the collapse of the finance industry in which Sam works and where Kay’s husband is a major player to create a micro/macro scenario of loss, damage and spiralling madness.

Not much of Sam’s story fit with his writer’s life; Nicholas is altogether a better-sorted and more balanced individual, so it didn’t take me long to sort out my initial conflation of the two, but then Nick and I got talking about the banking industry, culture and risk and how many of the guys in that industry had a culture of risk-taking that, when you dug a little deeper, was based in their past and in some problem: childhood deprivation, loss of a parent, early drink and drug abuse and so on that gave those ‘big swinging dicks’ a skewed perspective on risk and the ability to lie with confidence and style, even to themselves.

The Hummingbird and the Bear is an unusual book – written by a man about themes usually reserved for ‘women’s literature’ (up yours, VS Naipaul). It’s not what I would usually read but I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anybody who enjoys reading love stories, those who like fast-moving thrillers but are also interested in relationships and anybody who wonders why men don’t write love-stories: they do, Nick has, and it’s a damn good read!

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