This review originally appeared as part of Pageturners: sometimes mysterious on Buried.In.Print.
The perspective in The Bear is five-year-old Anna’s; imagine hers to be the larger silhouette on the cover, with her nearly-three-year-old brother in tow.
Imagine her to be tugging him away from the campsite ransacked by a bear in Algonquin Park; imagine these two children left to their own devices in the woods.
Imagine the irony of their mother’s statement below, in a scene which unfolded when the worst problem Anna faced was how to get a cookie without her mother seeing and which is remembered when the cookies are suddenly essential sustenance not a desirable treat.
“I snuck a cookie when Momma wasn’t looking. She found the lid off when I forgot to put it back because the cookie was so good I had to eat it right away. She looked at the lid off to the side and put it back. She looked at me and smiled and said ‘ A bear must have gotten into our cookie tin.’ And I smiled too and shrugged my shoulders so she wouldn’t know. I get the lid off and whoa the smell of cookies and there are chocolate chips and I stuff one into my mouth and take another and give one to Stick. Finally he is eating a cookie and he is quiet and we are sitting in ankle water in the canoe with sopping wet bums.”
Having the novel narrated by a child creates a deliberate confusion for readers; this is sometimes a delightful puzzle, and sometimes a frustration, which both illuminates the unexpected and muddies the story.
Sometimes it is charming, and sometimes it is horrifying. And it is successful, primarily because the book is limited in length to the same degree that Anna’s comprehension is limited.
“The black dog noses around and it grabs something in its mouth and I look and I can’t tell what it is besides long. But it waves around and on the end it’s red and it might be the meat with Daddy’s sneaker. Daddy won’t like a bear chewing his sneaker.
‘Hey,’ I say.”
This is not the first time that a bear has made an appearance in Claire Cameron’s fiction; The Line Painter was a page-turner too, although because of the two-legged characters, not the bear.
“The bear was at the base of the tree, a paw on my bag, watching me climb. His eyes flickered with amused curiosity. Seeing I’d stopped, he quickly lost interest. He got a firm hold on my bag with his mouth, strolled over to a patch of sun by the lake, and sat down with a thump.”
The Bear has the patch of sun and the lake too, but a very interested bear. And even the adult narrator of The Line Painter was deeply affected by her encounter.
“I was shaky and feeling weak, tired, and a bit homesick. The bear had scared me to my core.”
So it’s unsurprising that the encounter described in The Bear would have lifelong repercussions on any survivor(s). And without going into detail this is considered in the final segment of The Bear.
What touched me most as a reader was the immersive experience of reading Anna’s story in her own voice, which comprises the majority of the novel; the reflective aspects of the novel did not have the same resonance for me.
Many readers are comparing The Bear to Room, Anna’s experiences to Jack’s, and I enjoyed the “before” aspects of that story more than the “after” aspects as well; but whether “before” or “after”, the author’s ability to tell an incredibly compelling story is impressive in both of her novels.
Both of Claire Cameron's novels are un-put-down-able: truly.