Goodreads is an interesting place. I post my reviews on there mostly out of habit these days. It also helps me keep track of which books I’ve read. I don’t often agree with the mass consensus on very popular books so I strongly believe I’m not the right person for the site. Although, I do really enjoy going on there when I read a book I know most people won’t enjoy. I knew Bear by Marian Engel would be the kind of book that caused outrage on the site and I wasn’t disappointed. So many 1-star reviews that ignore so much about the book. Or 1-star reviews that say, I stopped reading after this point. I knew it was coming but it still gives me joy.
Bear by Marian Engel is a book with quite the reputation. Every so often, people discover that it exists and lose their minds. To be fair, it’s mostly down to the vintage book covers that depict a naked woman in an embrace with a bear. If you were not to read the book and go off these images alone, you could easily believe that this was a book about a woman having sex with a bear. As soon as you read it, you would realise that it’s about so much more than that. You’ll also realise that it is a wonderful and unforgettable read.
It is the story of Lou, a 27-year old a 27-year-old archivist who is sent to sort out the house of Colonel Cary. The house is situated on an island in the Algoma district in northeastern Ontario. As well as the library, the island is home to a bear that Cary kept as a sort of pet. During her time on the island, Lou forms an unlikely bond with the bear. A bond that gets more than a little out of hand as Lou becomes more comfortable in her freedom.
Things do take a slight sexual turn but Lou can’t pretend that the bear will reciprocate her feelings. No matter how much she tries to anthropomorphises the bear. Let’s get things clear, this isn’t a book that supports or promotes Beastiality. So, what is it about? One of the greatest things about this book is that there are so many ways to read it. For one thing, it can see as a woman breaking free of her social role and taking agency of her sexuality. It is a book that puts the spotlight on the female pursuit of pleasure, which is something that the patriarchal society had long tried to cover up.
When Lou is on the island, she is free to focus on who she is and what she wants. She’s no longer just going about her daily business and she starts to realise how unfulfilling her life is. Her previous sexual encounters have been pedestrian and unsatisfying. She talks of one former lover who only wanted her as long his socks were folded. Then there’s her boss who she regularly has sex with because it’s become part of her routine. It is only on the island that she can admit that she wants and deserves more. Just like the bear, she had been kept captive. Her arrival on the island allows them both to get a taste of freedom and their bond is solidified.
Yet this is also a folktale. It’s the story of a woman who tries to hide in fantasy. She stops seeing the bear as a predator but puts a different face on it. He becomes a gentle and attentive lover. The strong protector and quiet companion. She sees him smile at her. She comes to understand her mood. She sees her future with the bear and uses him as her attachment to the world around her. Engel is attempting to create a plausible (yet disturbing) relationship between them. Then, for both Lou and the reader, reality comes crashing in. Bear is a story about how we see the world and convince ourselves of our own reality. It is dangerous to project your own feelings onto the world around you.
I could on about this book forever but I don’t want to get carried away. I could talk about the idea of colonialism and Lou’s attempt to force herself on the natural world. Forcing her way in before being violently reminded of her place. There are so many levels to this narrative and it’s such a short book. A short and very enjoyable read. It’s the kind of book that feels effortless to read but will give you so much to think about. Anyone who reads it and just focuses on the sex is willfully ignoring all of the layers.