REVIEW: Bear by Marian Engel

Lou is a lonely librarian who spends her days in the dusty archives of the Historical Institute. When an unusual field assignment comes her way, she jumps at the chance to travel to a remote island in northern Ontario, where she will spend the summer cataloguing a library that belonged to an eccentric nineteenth-century colonel. Eager to investigate the estate’s curious history, she is shocked to discover that the island has one other inhabitant: a bear. Lou’s imagination is soon overtaken by the island’s past occupants, whose deep fascination with bears gradually becomes her own. Irresistibly, Lou is led along a path of emotional and sexual self-awakening, as she explores the limits of her own animal nature. What she discovers will change her life forever.

Warnings: bestiality, depression, suicide mention, use of racial slur

Category: M/F

Bear is a literary erotic novel about a woman who enters into a sexual relationship with a bear. It won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1976, and while it’s content is certainly shocking and controversial, it remains a highly praised piece, and is considered by many to be a quintessential piece of Canadian literature due to it’s use of environment and wilderness in it’s prose and narrative. Taking place deep in the forests of Ontario, it gives a rather emotionally compelling depiction of what rough life in the wild is like for many (though most probably get by with a whole lot less bear-fucking)

I will note that this book was written in 1976. It uses the word ‘Indians’ for First Nations people, and has some insensitive racial attitudes.

The prose in Bear is absolutely breathtaking. I was hooked on the narrative from the first page. Although it is very slice of life, and there’s not a lot going on in it’s plot, it is very much an internal narrative concerning the struggles of life for it’s main character, and the story it tells is about her journey to self acceptance and growth. It’s also about the figurative ‘ghosts’ of the people left behind by the ephemera she catalogues, and it’s a lovely little exploration of the sometimes surprising simplicity of life. Lou keeps expecting to find some sort of hidden treasure or deep meaning in the house she’s cataloguing but the actual reality is that people can be straightforward and simple and there’s not always more to delve into. People live their lives, make homes for themselves, and then eventually die, and the book explores these themes with mad gusto. Instead of finding something revolutionary about the past, she discovers something about herself and her future.

I was extremely invested in the main character Lou and her struggles with life and depression. She was a very relatable voice, at times euphoric and at other times bogged down in the mires of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. Lou has been working as a Librarian for years, has trauma surrounding sex and relationships, struggles with mental health and feelings of low self worth, and finds herself latching on to coping mechanisms and routines in order to make sense of her life. One such coping mechanism ends up being the Bear that she is tasked with caring for, and the slowly developing ‘relationship’ between them is sweet and innocent before it takes it’s rather darker turn. Lou is, at times, a mad woman, and at other times a very sensitive and lonely woman, and all of that is so incredibly well conveyed that I couldn’t help feeling for her and being intensely connected to her on an emotional level.

Ostensibly one of the biggest reasons this book is as critically acclaimed as it is is in it’s beautiful depictions of life in the Canadian wilderness. It more than delivers on showcasing roughing it in the great outdoors, the experience of loneliness that comes from living alone in a cabin in the middle of the woods on an island, and the peace and solitude of a simple existence. Aside from the forest life, it also builds a very rich world around the house that Lou is cataloguing; the people who lived there previously, their lives and their ambitions, their foils and their dealings. It makes for a story that, while technically all takes place inside of a single cabin, feels expansive and wider than itself and it’s characters.

What makes this book infamously controversial is of course it’s depiction of sexual relations between a human woman and a bear. This is a very explicit book, despite reading more like an emotional psychological exploration than like titillation material, and it doesn’t shy away much from the details. There are many different ways that you can interpret the “sex with a bear” scenes; at face value, from Lou’s POV, they are exceptionally emotional, sensual moments of a woman finally exploring pleasure on her own terms. Underneath the layer of the unreliable narrator of course, they are scenes of animal abuse as a woman forces her desires on a creature that cannot consent. You could also interpret them as metaphorical, the bear as a symbol representing her journey and growth into self autonomy and independence. Or you could, like me, wonder if the bear is a metaphorical manifestation of the ghosts of the previous occupants of the house. However you choose to interpret the sex, however, it is beautifully written and sentimental, and has a rather primal force to it.

While I think that calling it “The best Canadian novel of all time” may be a bit of an exaggeration, I found it to be a very thoughtful and compelling read, and I am very glad to have read it. While the extreme nature of it’s content may make it difficult for many people to pick up, it has a lot of emotional depth and complexity. Some reviewers have stated that you need to “try not to take it very seriously” in order to enjoy it, but I found I had the opposite experience; I went into it expecting to find it an amusingly strange and surreal read, but instead I found myself seriously contemplating the nature of human life long after having finished it.

Have you read Bear? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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