The Bear, by Claire Cameron (Harvill Secker). This is the first book i’ve read from the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. In the author’s note, Claire Cameron explains that this story is based on real events that occurred in October 1991 when a bear attacked Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe while camping on Bates Island on Lake Opeongo (where the book takes place).
The title makes it pretty obvious what the book is going to be about, although your expectation of the bear is somewhat subverted by the narrator’s reliance on her teddy bear, Gwen. This, and the fact that the narrator, 5-year-old Anna, calls the bear ‘the black dog’, emphasises the detachment of the destructive animal from the word ‘bear’. Instead, the only bear she recognises in her situation is Gwen, who gives her the strength to look after her little brother Alex in the wilderness. The title of the book seems to refer to the determination and courage harnessed by the young female protagonist – the book is not about the bear attack, it is about her strong will to survive.
The story trots along at a nice pace, and the narrator keeps you deeply involved in everything that’s going on in a hyper alert, emotional way that only a 5-year-old can manage. I’m not sure if it’s because of the age of the children, or the way in which they are portrayed, but you are entirely emotionally invested in their story, and despite being older, and ultimately wiser than they are, you aren’t any more in the loop about what’s going to happen to them than they are. The real events that the story is based on do not contain children – the author herself says,
‘ The Bear is based on my memories and research of this bear attack. I added the kids.’
All the way through, you are constantly guessing what will happen, with only the slightly comforting thought of ‘she won’t kill off two young kids, will she?’ You’ll just need to keep guessing until you read it because I’m not saying another word about how it ends.
I see Stick sitting there like a lump on the ground. He has two small sticks that are no good even though he thinks they are cars. If they are cars they don’t go fast. I do a big roar and Stick turns around and his eyes are puffy but they still go big and he looks scared and all he does is cry. Stupid Stick. He will be no good when black dog comes it will be all up to me and everything is up to me. I turn away and stab at the ground and I find a softer part where I can stick in the stick and make it stay and I practise. Over and over I roar like a daddy and I pretend the spot is black dog and he is scared and I get him dead. And am the queen of the land and no one else can be.
The childlike language is a slight hurdle, but I got used to it pretty quickly. Narration in this style can sometimes have a tendency to be overly simplistic, but the author has done a fantastic job of exploring the mind of a young girl, and portrays Anna as imaginative, inquisitive, loving and problem solving. Anna is kind and brave, and at the same time as you are terrified for her, you are constantly marveling at her courage and tenacity. It makes you wonder what you would have done in that situation, and you wish that you would be as resourceful and brave as Anna proves herself to be.
It’s really a wonderful story, very emotional at times but also funny. The love between a brother and a sister becomes a skill for survival in what has become my favourite book of the year so far.
Aside: Our blog is very ‘this is brilliant’ focused, and I know that some reviewers disagree with this method of blogging/reviewing. Our general thinking is ‘why review a book that we wouldn’t recommend to other people?’ So this is what we do – we review books that we think are worth reading, even if we didn’t enjoy them ourselves.