Book Review: Bear

fiction by Marian Engel

Though Bear was first published in 1976 it’s still being talked about so I felt compelled to read it. Bear won the Canadian Governor General’s Award and this is partly because the bestiality was clothed in some correct CanLit attire: the requisite references to myth (none of which were satisfying) and the intertextuality of the library setting. At the heart of the plot is a fallacy that blocked my full appreciation of the qualities for which the book has been lauded. A tour de force, said the New York Times. A startlingly alive narrative of the forbidden, said the Washington Post. Canada’s Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, said the Globe and Mail. Margaret Atwood called it “a strange and wonderful book, plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale, and with the same disturbing resonance.”

Talk about twisted, if there hasn’t been, there should be a PhD thesis on the comparison of Bear to Lolita, or LCL for that matter. In any case, I think Bear merits some of the praise but the plot is possible only because there’s a chained bear who’s content to be a chained bear and I couldn’t get past that. The bear has no freedom, is led around by the female lead character, fed like a dog, swims and plays in the sea with her, even licks her genitals. It’s a non-bear bear. Consequently, she falls in love with it. As soon as the bear exhibits a hint of bear-ness, as soon as it becomes even mildly threatening, POOF, the fallacy disappears, the character flees and the narrative ends.
Bear is a psycho-sexual journey and a bizarre take on wilderness anxiety. As a person who has spent time alone in the wilderness I can attest to plenty of anxiety myself, much of it centered on a fear of bears, so much so I named my condition Bearanoia. As a top predator, bears can, and do, rip us to shreds. Too bad the bear in this book didn’t get to break his chains.