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Anyone who follows Dorian on Twitter may well have seen his huge enthusiasm for Bear by Marian Engel – Dorian wrote a wonderful essay about the book which you can read here. I confess to having bought this new Daunt Books edition of Bear on something of a whim – and then wondered if I wanted to read it. When I saw that Bear qualified for the #1976club I decided it was fate. I admit I approached with caution – after all there’s really only one thing people talk about when they talk about this novel, and that’s rather a shame it’s about so much more than that (more about that later). I think I was affected by my preconceptions of this, and that idea it might not be for me. However, I did really enjoy Bear, for me a four star rather than a five star read – though I couldn’t explain why.

Two things I love in a novel – or novella I should probably say – and that is beautiful, unfussy prose, the other a strong sense of place. Engel’s writing is pitch perfect, and I could have included many more quotes in this review – I was spoiled for choice.

Bear is a novel about self-discovery and solitude, the natural world and its healing powers on a fragile soul. It’s oddly tender in places, often funny and on the back of my copy is described both as ‘the best Canadian novel of all time’ and ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada.’ And if that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what will.

Lou is a librarian, who works for a heritage institute, in the city, by day she is buried in the basement of the building surrounded by manuscripts, photographs and old maps. She lives a small, lonely life with little if any variation.

“In the winter she lived like a mole, buried deep in her office, digging among maps and manuscripts. She lived close to her work, and shopped on the way between her apartment and the Institute, scurrying hastily through the tube of winter from refuge to refuge, wasting no time. She did not like cold air on her skin.”

Then, unexpectedly her work provides Lou with an opportunity to escape the tedium of her existence. She is asked to travel to a remote Canadian island to inventory the late Colonel Jocelyn Cary’s estate. Anticipating a summer in beautiful surroundings, quietly cataloguing, Lou heads north in her car. Although the car can only take her so far, the last little bit of her journey must be done by boat. The house on Cary’s Island is a white, octagon, Lou is surprised that a house of such quality isn’t better known. She is shown around the house and island by Homer Campbell, from who she will get her supplies. She learns about the gas lighting the wood stove and the pump outside. Yet, it’s only at the last minute she is told about the bear. It seems there has always been a bear on Carey’s Island. Homer doesn’t know why there’s always been bear, there just has. Lou is well suited to cataloguing, sifting among the materials left behind by an earlier generation and finding out all she can about that life – but she certainly hadn’t reckoned with caring for a bear.

“So this was her kingdom: an octagonal house, a roomful of books, and a bear.”

Lou settles down to her work, she is intrigued by Colonel Cary and his descendants, hoping of course to uncover something incredible. She also becomes more and more drawn to her unusual charge. The bear is chained up in the barn, an ageing bear with sad eyes and matted fur. Lou connects with him on a simple level – two creatures brought together, sharing a space. An ancient indigenous woman who formally cared for the bear, tells Lou the bear is a good bear. Lou takes the bear into the lake with her, allowing the water to clean its matted fur. She allows him off the chain, and in the evenings the bear comes into the house, sprawling out in front of the fire.

“‘Bear.’ She said, rubbing her foot in his fur, suddenly lonely. The fire was too hot, and the fur rug, had edged toward her. Oh, she was lonely, inconsolably lonely; it was years since she had had human contact. She had always been bad at finding it. It was if men knew that her soul was gangrenous.”

Gradually, Lou’s relationship with the bear begins to change, he’s no longer an it, a creature to be chained up and feared. Although that potential danger is always there, adding a little frisson perhaps to the heightening sexualised tension between the two of them. It’s testament to Engel’s skill as a writer that this bizarre relationship – which does of course become a sexual one, is while rather shocking, also believable. So, yes that is what everyone talks about with this book – a novel likely to have people crying ‘ugh, bear sex! No thanks.” Well, I am very glad I took a chance. It is, dare I suggest, rather more grown up than, woman has sex with bear.

Bear is so much more than the one thing everyone talks about – there is a sensuous subtlety to Engel’s writing. The story of Lou and Bear is told with a sympathetic tenderness. However, it is Lou’s discovery of herself that is the real joy to witness. Engel’s descriptions of the natural world are really beautiful, there is a stunning sense of place, an appreciation of the rhythms of the seasons and the natural world.

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