In 1991, Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe went on a three-day weekend camping trip to Bates Island, Lake Opeongo, Algonquin Park, Canada. Friends contacted the police on Monday when they failed to return. On Wednesday, their partially eaten remains were found, a large black male bear standing over them. There was no reason for the attack.
Cameron has taken this event as her starting point and given the couple two children, Alex, nicknamed ‘Stick’, aged two almost three and Anna, our narrator, five almost six.
The novel opens with the bear attack, during which ‘Daddy’ places Anna and Stick inside ‘Coleman’ the family’s cool box. Anna imagines that the animal she can hear outside is Snoopy, the dog that lives next door to their house in Toronto:
The sniffing gets louder. Snoopy is coming to see me. I stick my fingers out to say hello because I have one hand that isn’t holding Gwen [Anna’s stuffed bear]. There is a bad smell. I pull my fingers in to plug my nose up because my nostrils don’t like the smell. Snoopy needs a bath. It smells like the rotting leaves under the cottage and when there were fish guts in the boat. Yuck. Snoopy comes and I see his nose sniffing in the crack but his smell is wrong and it gives me the shakes and I don’t know why except the smell of fish. I don’t like fish to eat. The crack goes dark and there is hair coming in the crack. It is not like Snoopy’s. It is more prickly hair and fills up the crack and turns out the lights and I can’t see.
It’s difficult to say any more about the plot of the book without spoiling the tension and fear that drives it. So I won’t.
There are several things that work well in the novel: the moments when Anna tells us something unaware of the gravity of her words/what she’s seen – there are two or three really powerful images created this way; the difficulties that the children have to deal with besides the bear, some of these also add a much needed touch of humour which bring some relief, and the use of the bear as a metaphor for the terror Anna feels, at two points in the book, it’s difficult to tell whether the bear is really there and this is effective in ramping up the tension.
However, the book is not without flaws and how much they affect your enjoyment of the story really comes down to one thing: how much you like child narrators.
The more novels I read told from a first person, young child narrator (by which I mean twelve or under), the more frustrated I become with them. This is not to say there aren’t some great books with children at the helm and it doesn’t make The Bear a terrible book either, as I pointed out earlier, there are some very good things about it. But my problem with child narrators is this: their viewpoint and their vocabulary are limited. Sometimes the viewpoint limitation works well and Cameron exploits this a few times in her book. Sometimes it’s boring; as an adult, you can find yourself several steps ahead and unless you’re about to be wrong footed, as a reader, this isn’t where you want to be. It’s also very easy to be put-off by a word used which you think a child that age wouldn’t know. When that happens, you’re taken out of the fictional world and the fact it’s a creation is all too obvious. I also suspect this becomes more of a problem when you have kids of your own or you work with children. Do you want to listen to your own young child for three hours?
The Bear is an interesting concept with some great moments; there’s much to enjoy/terrify the hell out of you here. How much you enjoy it as a whole will depend on your opinion of five almost six-year-old narrators.
Thanks to Vintage Books for the review copy.