Bear is a novel by Marian Engel.
Finished on: 29.3.2023
Lou is an archivist. She is sent to a remote island where her archive has inherited the private estate, including the library, of local eccentric of Colonel Cary. Hoping that the library would contain some local history, Lou sets about the task to catalogue it all in the solitude of the island. Although she isn’t quite as alone as she might have thought: in a shed next to the house lives a bear that Lou is tasked to take care of. As the summer goes on, the two become ever closer.
Bear has garnered a bit of internet fame in recent years, leading to the rediscovery of the novel by a broader audience. I am not immune to this kind of book trend, especially when it’s about rediscovering a female author who arguably writes feminist fiction. Bear was definitely an interesting read though not one I fell in love with quite as much as I would have liked.
Bear has mostly garnered a reputation for having a sex scene (actually more than one) between Lou and the bear. In German twitter, it even made the rounds as #BärenSexBuch (#BearSexBook). It is actually not the first book I read that featured human-ursine sex (that honor goes to Tender Morsels), but it is definitely a surprisingly realistic depiction of it.
In any case, it’s not really about the sex. While it is the thing that draws people’s attention, it really is a book about a woman who finds her way to herself through a relationship that is both different and not so different to the ones she has had so far. Relationships shaped by a certain inequality, with a bit of danger and definitely a lot of social stigma. But where Lou kind of abuses herself by maintaining relationships with men that don’t have much to offer, to put it mildly, in her relationship with the bear, she is the powerful one, she is the one who uses. It is not a particularly healthy relationship as you can probably imagine, but her own power is heightened by the bear’s (physical) power, and when he actually hurts her (as is in his nature), she learns that you can also walk away from a relationship that just doesn’t work.
I found this way of facilitating Lou’s growth fascinating and very well done. At the same time, I was also a little confused about the backstory surrounding Colonel Cary – I could never really keep the family members straight in my head and was therefore never really sure about how they really fit in the larger story, though I rather liked certain elements of it.
It is overall a beautifully written novel that I found engaging. I think what kept me from loving it completely (apart from my Cary confusion) was the fact that the themes just didn’t speak to me that much. I remained a bit at a distance from Lou when I just wanted to be drawn in. That’s a pity but that doesn’t make the novel a bad one – far from it.
Summarizing: definitely worth reading.