Review: Insurgent and Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

InsurgentHC-jkt-des4allegiant+cover>>Published (Insurgent): May 2012

>>Published (Allegiant): October 2013

>>Finally got around to both: March 2014

I feel like I am not hearing anything new—just the same philosophy that spawned the factions, driving people to manipulate their genes instead of separating into virtue-based groups. I understand it. On some level I even agree with it. But I don’t know how it relates to us, here, now.

“But when the genetic manipulations began to take effect, the alterations had disastrous consequences. As it turns out, the attempt had resulted not in corrected genes, but in damaged ones,” David says. “Take away someone’s fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty… and you take away their compassion. Take away someone’s aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation. If you think about it, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.”

I tick off each quality in my mind as he says it—fear, low intelligence, dishonesty, aggression, selfishness. He is talking about the factions. And he’s right to say that every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling.

***

Up front: I’m going to be spoiling elements of the entire series in this review, up to and including the end of Allegiant, so fair warning.

I reviewed the first book in author Veronica Roth’s YA trilogy, Divergent, back when it was first released in mid-2011. Due to an overwhelming number of other books I wanted and needed to read in the interim, and my desire to absorb the series in one large gulp, I opted to hold off on its sequel, Insurgent, when it was released a year later, waiting instead for the release of the final book in the series, Allegiant, which dropped into stores late last year. Now with the first of the books’ film adaptations released in theatres, it seemed a perfect time to finally revisit and polish off the series.

I’m glad I did, too, because there’s a lot to like in Roth’s futuristic dystopia. While it does take a great many things from other, more developed sources of inspiration, and certain elements of the series stumble and fall apart entirely by the end of the third book, I still found myself caring about certain characters more than I ever expected to, and by the end felt satisfied by where they ended up. I don’t think Roth’s relationships were necessarily all that successful, but more on that later.

To go back to the very beginning: The Divergent trilogy takes place primarily in a post-catastrophe version of Chicago, where at the age of sixteen all citizens are forced to choose a “faction.” These factions become one’s home; fellow initiates become one’s family (the phrase “faction before blood” is ingrained in the minds of all, it seems, in this dystopian society). The factions themselves are broken down into five attractive possibilities, highlighting individuals’ potential (and as a result, drawing attention to many of their worst traits as well): there’s Abnegation for the selfless, Erudite for the intellectual elite, Amity for the peace-loving non-aggressive types, Candor for the brutally honest, and Dauntless for the brave, mostly fearless, and moderately masochistic.

As the series begins, Abnegation-born Beatrice “Tris” Prior and her brother Caleb are preparing to choose their futures. While the brainy and deceitful Caleb choses Erudite, Tris embraces her inner wild child (or something like that) and decides on a life with Dauntless. Within the Dauntless community, she trains extensively alongside other possible initiates, faces her deepest fears (with help from a vaguely detailed hallucinogenic serum), and even falls in love with Four—Tobias, one of her guides through Dauntless initiation.

By the end of the first book, Erudite’s villainous leader Jeanine Matthews, with assistance from some of the more arrogant leaders of Dauntless, puts into motion a plan to seize control of the other factions—starting with the elimination of the Abnegation. She accomplishes such a feat through the use of another serum—a form of mind control that turns nearly all of the Dauntless initiates into sleepwalking weapons. Tris and Tobias naturally put an end to the attack, but at great cost to their families and the future of their society.

The second book in the series, Insurgent brings the factionless sect of the population into play in a big way. Led by Tobias’s previously thought dead mother Evelyn, the factionless aim to take down Jeanine Matthews and destroy the faction system by any means necessary (in the process, replacing one tyrant with another).

Insurgent is far and away the most action-packed of the three books, but also the most infuriating. As the growing resistance to the Erudite hits fever pitch, Tris and Tobias’s relationship is tested… and tested again, and again, and again, with lies on top of lies and hair-trigger shouting matches that unfortunately drain a lot of life from the book. Nearly all the life, in fact. Hell, two thirds of the way through Insurgent I just wanted Tris and Tobias to hate-fuck one another and get it out of their systems so they could see how absolutely terrible they were as a couple.

By the end of the second book, with previously established villains done away with and a rather out-of-left-field revelation as to the state of the world outside the protective fence surrounding Chicago, the entire story is tossed on its head, leading directly into the third and final book in the series, Allegiant.

Picking up right where Insurgent left off, Allegiant immediately throws a wrench into the mix by changing the established narrative format: the first two books in the series take place entirely in first-person, from Tris’s perspective; Allegiant also takes place in the first-person, but splits chapters between both Tris and Tobias, offering a new side to the tale—and accentuating, intentionally or not, Tris’s more aggravating traits, such as her absolute inability to see the grey in the motivations and actions of others. This decision to alter the established format helped to keep the narrative moving in more interesting and varied directions than Insurgent, and additionally helped to avoid one of the larger problems with the Hunger Games franchise—that everything interesting happened when Katniss was unconscious, leaving her and readers to experience events after the fact and not in the moment.

Despite the welcome change in format, however, Allegiant offers the most uneven story of the trilogy. What began as an interesting metaphor via the different factions, for how as youths we learn to differentiate ourselves from our friends, family, and classmates based on our skills and aptitude, is stripped away, revealed as a mere shroud for an elaborate government endeavour to salvage humanity’s survival by seeking out the genetically “pure” among the greater population. These, of course, are those who were hunted in the first book for being Divergent, for being able to think and act outside the confines of their faction’s straightforward characteristics and thought patterns. The reason for all this is due to the Purity War that previously decimated North America. Only with help and dissemination of the strongest genetic specimens will the world crawl out of its current state of disaster, where GDs—the “genetically damaged”—threaten to repeat the sins of the past, weakening the species as a whole.

At least I think that was the point of all this. To tell you the truth, the plot, like the character’s actions themselves (so much betrayal!), becomes quite muddled thanks to an overreliance on a rudimentary analysis of genes and the threats associated with genetic manipulation. And beyond all this talk of genes are the serums—chemical concoctions for all types of necessary actions and recourses, along with convenient inoculations against the serums when the plot calls for it. If I sound a bit annoyed by this, it’s because the serums, when introduced in the first book, are extremely vague—and the more Roth expands and relies on the different types of serums in books two and three, the more convenient, and subsequently less interesting, they become. In fact, serums of all types are referenced so often in Allegiant (seeing as they are the crux of every plan, good and evil alike), and detailed so minimally, that they quickly become a multi-faceted deus ex machina—a set of skeleton keys for every eventuality. They wind up distracting from the characters themselves—it’s as if in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final battle was not between Harry and Voldemort but the spells Expelliarmus and Avada Kedavra.After a while, I got so sick of the word “serum” I started mentally replacing it with “jellybean,” improving my enjoyment of the book considerably.

As the story expands, introducing readers to Roth’s vision of the decimated world outside of the Chicago experiment, Allegiant is faced with a clear crisis of identity: on one hand, by allowing us insight into both Tris and Tobias’s heads, it strives for more intimacy than either of the previous two books; on the other hand, it wants to grow and expand into something larger, more epic in scope, now that they’ve managed to escape their faction-orientated lives. However, in both cases the narrative doesn’t quite succeed: for me, Tris and Tobias’s relationship ended in the second book—the horrible way they treat one another, blowing up at one another so many times I lost count, lying continuously to one another for this, that, and the other reason… the author was never able to convince me there was still love between them, not even in their post-coital glow (yeah, I know, she doesn’t come right out and say it, but they totally fucked, right?); and in regards to the larger narrative, by abandoning the factions and focusing almost exclusively on the goings-on at the Bureau monitoring the Chicago experiment, the narrative somehow becomes smaller, as individuals and alliances and all the chaos from inside the city are removed for a story that supposedly involves the entire United States government yet feels encapsulated within the lives and machinations of just a few dozen people. The bulk of the third book could take place at a research station in the middle of Antarctica and it would feel about as small and restricted. The artifice of the factions, while implausible, offered more convincing stakes than anything that happens on the Fringe or at the Bureau.

I know I’m complaining a lot, but really, despite the aforementioned issues, I did enjoy my time with the series, more or less. Mostly because for all its narrative missteps, I appreciate what it feels like Roth was shooting for. The divide between the different factions in Divergent is at first ideological, but by Allegiant and the introduction of the genetic war, it’s clear Roth is attempting to comment on not just ideological differences but also divergences between classes, races, and even sexualities (a short subplot involving Amar and Tris discussing the former’s attraction to Tobias and being unable to divulge his preferences due to Bureau rules and regulations—any relationship not for the passing on of “improved” genes is not encouraged—offers a small but essential bit of insight into just how far off the deep end the Bureau really is). The interesting social subplots that might have developed from this increased focus are unfortunately overwhelmed by a lot of action and unnecessary verbal altercations, but I appreciate even the mere threads of their existence.

There were other issues, too—the adults never quite felt like adults, merely children older and more adept at deception; the punishment for Tobias’s “great crime” is ridiculously lenient and feels like a throwaway element for the sake of adding extra drama to the proceedings, to drive yet another wedge between he and Tris—but the final stumbling block I found is with something I’ve heard others complain about. I’m speaking, of course, of Tris’s death.

What’s that you say? Fuck you, Andrew, for spoiling the ending? Didn’t you read the warning at the beginning of this bloody review?

Anyway, yes, Tris dies—not from death jellybeans (serum) as expected, but from a couple of gunshots to the back (try as I might, I can’t think of another YA character shot as many times throughout a series as Tris). She sacrifices herself for her brother, Caleb, as her final act of bravery, to show him that she had in fact forgiven him for almost getting her killed in the second book (which makes her a better person than me). However, I didn’t mind that she sacrificed herself for Caleb, shit stain that he is. Actually, I felt it fit quite well with her character. No, my problem with Tris’s death is that because of the narrative’s previously discussed limitations, and the surprisingly small scope of Allegiant’s government-indicting tale, her death felt somehow… insignificant.

But let’s end this rambling diatribe on a positive note: I very much enjoyed Allegiant’s epilogue, which picks up with Tobias two and a half years after the fall of the Bureau, as a cautious balance has been achieved between the world within the fence and the world outside. It is in this final section that Roth achieves something I’d thought impossible since the middle of Insurgent: she made me care about Tobias and Tris’s relationship again. While it’s too little too late for Tris, the epilogue offers a satisfying resolution for Tobias, forcing him to face several of his fears at once and still stand strong.

Overall, though the series has its ups and downs, it is more successful, and enjoyable, than its two closest competitors: The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. While the first book, Divergent, is undoubtedly the strongest of the three, followed by Allegiant then Insurgent, the series will successfully scratch your YA dystopia itch. I wish the world were more thought out in terms of details, and that the scope of things were increased so that the situation felt as dire as we were instructed to believe, but Roth’s trilogy offers a mostly satisfying tale, occasionally overburdened by uncooked ideas, yet nicely wrapped up in its final pages.

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Review: Tampa, by Alissa Nutting

17225311>>Published: July 2013

>>Finally got around to it: March 2014

A sluggish couple walking a basset hound turned the corner to come down the road and circle back. They moved at a pace their bodies would have been unable to discern from rest. I felt like a child when I saw middle-aged partners and remembered they had sex together—there was still that initial sense of horror and denial. What aspect of either one of them could be pleasant to touch or to see, even in the darkest room? Sex struck me as a seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life, needing to be peeled and eaten the moment the urge ripened. Even by sixteen, seventeen, it seemed that people became too comfortable with their desires to have any objectivity over their vulgar moments. They closed their eyes to avoid awkward orgasm faces, slipped lingerie made for models and mannequins onto wholly imperfect bodies. Who was that queen who tried to keep her youth by bathing in the blood of virgins? She should’ve had sex with them instead, or at least had sex with them before killing them. Many might label this a contradiction, but I felt it to be a simple irony: in my view, having sex with teenagers was the only way to keep the act wholesome. They’re observant; they catalog every detail to obsess upon. They’re obsessive by nature. Should there be any other way to experience sex? I remember taking my shirt off for a friend’s younger brother in college. The way his eyes lit up like he was seeing snow for the first time.

***

Tampa is the second book I’ve read this year starring a honest-to-goodness sociopath (the first being M. E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath). Sure, it’d be easy to simply label Alissa Nutting’s protagonist, eighth grade teacher Celeste Price, as a paedophile and be done with it. However, doing so would be ignoring a degree of selfishness—of personal need no matter the cost and damage to others—that goes beyond her abhorrent sexual predilections and crosses effortlessly into villainy.

As mentioned, Tampa is a first-person account of forbidden, illegal sexual conquest. Celeste Price, a twenty-six-year-old former sorority girl, isn’t interested in her thirty-one-year-old police officer husband Ford, nor for that matter anyone old enough to vote, buy booze, or drive a car. No, Celeste’s tastes are for virgin boys barely old enough to get it up in the first place—boys for whom she can be a “sexual yardstick” for the rest of their days, a love-stripped fuck they’ll spend the remainder of their lives chasing like a junkie reminiscing about their first hit of heroin.

As the story commences, Celeste is about to embark on her first year teaching eighth grade English at Jefferson Junior High in Tampa, Florida. The novel wastes no time outlining the teacher’s unique physical preferences, on the very first page citing her husband’s age as “roughly seventeen years past my window of sexual interest.” More to the point:

Extreme growth spurts or pronounced muscles were immediate grounds for disqualification. They also needed to have decent skin, be somewhat thin, and have either the shame or the preternatural discipline required to keep a secret.

On the very first day of class, a young fourteen-year-old boy named Jack Patrick catches her eye. From the moment she sets her sights on him it’s like a predator stalking its prey—nothing will divert her from her “mission” to bed this boy. From here, the story follows a somewhat but not terribly predictable path: love’s first blush, passionate interest, dangerous obsession, and the messy aftermath.

Actually, scratch the word “love” from that. For Celeste, love has absolutely nothing to do with her predilections. In fact, love is not in any way a guiding force for her behaviour. Moreover, the very idea of it seems to repulse her, as if it is a literal noose around the neck of her raging libido. She is a woman in full embrace of her sexual desires, and never once does she fall into anything greater than lust—pure, unadulterated sexual ambition with nary a hint of care for the wellbeing of anyone but herself.

Which brings us back around to the point mentioned at the start of this review: yes, Celeste is a paedophile, but she is also a sociopath. She is in her corner and no one else’s; when even the slightest possibility of being caught in a compromised position presents itself, Celeste’s mind immediately switches into survivalist mode, where everything is a weapon, every escape route is catalogued, and every possible manner of diverting blame from her is considered. Mary Kay Letourneau this is not.

A huge part of the attraction for her appears to be that she gets to both capitalize on her developed “assets” and experience while also denying her age as a number and a restriction; she gets to act carefree, like a teenager in love eating shitty food and making out in the back seat of her car. She understands the difference between love and lust, and chooses (or her libido chooses for her) to ignore one and gift total control to the other.

The novel’s use of Romeo and Juliet as Celeste’s entry into Jack’s mind and heart is especially interesting, given their roles. While Celeste trades off the illusion of being a wannabe Juliet who wishes she could slip back into her fourteen-year-old self and everything associated with it, Jack is very much a true-blue Romeo who clearly would, given the extreme nature of late-novel events, if asked, join with her in a suicide pact.

Nutting has accomplished an impressive feat with Tampa in that she’s created something that is equal parts compelling and nauseating. I never once wanted to stop reading Tampa; the book is an exercise in tension, as it’s clear from the get-go that, eventually, they will be discovered and all kinds of shit will hit the fan. It has the propulsion of a cliffhanger-laden thriller, though much of its drive comes from wanting desperately to see how far Celeste will go to satisfy her lust, and how much further she is willing to venture out over the precipice in order to protect herself, her reputation, and the very cushy lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.

With that said, I also felt, upon finishing each chapter, as if I wanted to step into the shower and exfoliate with steel wool—the more abrasive the better. The degree of linguistic colour Nutting employs when opening the door to Celeste’s warped psyche is alarming in its creativity.

There is no cleanliness anywhere to be found in the pages of Tampa. Just different shades of depravity. Recommended, but know what you’re getting into—I could very well see this book turning a lot of unprepared stomachs. Still, it’s a wickedly good read that I kind of hate myself for enjoying as much as I did.

 

Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

18007564>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2014

It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years!

I’m the first guy to drive long-distance on Mars. The first guy to spend more than thirty-one sols on Mars, The first guy to grow crops on Mars. First, first, first!

I wasn’t expecting to be first at anything. I was the fifth crewman out of the MDV when we landed, making me the seventeenth person to set foot on Mars. The egress order had been determined years earlier. A month before launch, we all got tattoos of our “Mars numbers.” Johanssen almost refused to get her “15” because she was afraid it would hurt. Here’s a woman who had survived the centrifuge, the vomit comet, hard-landing drills and 10k runs. A woman who fixed a simulated MDV computer failure while being spun around upside-down. But she was afraid of a tattoo needle.

Man, I miss those guys.

Jesus Christ, I’d give anything for a five-minute conversation with anyone. Anyone, anywhere, about anything.

I’m the first person to be alone on an entire planet.

***

Mark Watney is fucked.

Don’t take my word for it—he’ll tell you himself, several times in fact throughout the course of Andy Weir’s debut novel. The Martian is Watney’s story, from start to finish. Sure, the good folks at NASA play an integral role, as do his crewmates, but make no mistake: the spotlight belongs to Watney.

Let’s rewind a bit: The Martian begins in the aftermath of a tragic series of events. As part of the six-person mission to Mars known as Ares 3, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney was involved in an incident that left him stranded, abandoned and thought dead by his crewmates who were forced to evacuate the planet just six days into a month long mission, due to an unexpected and vicious sandstorm. Against all odds, Watney survives being impaled by a thin antennae and is forced to come to terms with his deadly, changed reality: he’s alone on an uninhabitable planet with minimal gear and rations, and even fewer options for survival or rescue.

Watney is forced to do an immediate assessment of the situation: with a great deal of ingenuity (and the ability to harvest his own bodily waste), Watney’s botanist training affords him the chance to construct a small potato farm which will help increase his odds of survival. Though even with such ingenuity, it would take an almost impossible amount of luck for him to survive the four years until the scheduled arrival of the Ares 4 mission. However, when thanks to satellite surveillance NASA learns Watney is still alive, the novel splits into two parts: Watney’s first-person accounts of life on Mars and the seemingly insurmountable and nearly life-ending crises that he is confronted with on an almost daily basis, and NASA (and eventually his crewmates from the Ares 3 mission) working around the clock to figure out some way of bringing Watney home safely—or at least extending his ability to survive until help can get to him.

The Martian is immediately engaging. Watney is equal parts a brilliant scientific and mathematical mind and a sarcastic asshole. His caustic sense of humour serves a twin purpose of keeping him sane amidst his increasing loneliness and giving him a natural layman’s ability to impart information to the reader in such a way as to be digestible, no matter how advanced or outlandish in concept. This duality is essential for keeping readers engaged for what is, in essence, a 370-page series of MacGyver-themed simulations, laced with a healthy dose of Murphy’s Law.

The Martian walks a very fine line of accessibility as Weir lays the mathematics on thick. If even reading about equations, on any level, is going to drive you up the wall, this is not the book for you. However, like the Alfonso Cuarón film Gravity, the veracity of the science does not matter so much as the author’s ability to sell it—which he does, admirably, even the almost impossible to believe “Rich Purnell Maneuver.” Due to the ever changing and always threatening nature of Watney’s situation, the equations are always in flux: adaptation is the name of the game, which keeps the narrative moving swiftly along without it ever falling too deeply into technical minutiae that, admittedly, very few reading this book would ever truly be capable of appreciating.

Watney’s aforementioned sarcasm goes a great distance in mitigating possible scientific exhaustion, but the novel’s ability to expand gradually to involve and embrace the views of others (NASA and the remaining crew of the Ares 3 mission in particular) is what keeps it moving at an almost filmic pace. From CNN hosting a daily catch-up show on all-things Watney, to the American post office issuing, and then being forced to recall a commemorative Mark Watney stamp (because, of course, they don’t put living people on stamps), the gradual expansion of the narrative manages to pull the rest of the world into the situation, even if they are only passive bystanders to the greatest reality television survivalist show ever conceived. The effect is cumulative, the tension strong.

Despite the often dire circumstances, I laughed out loud several times while reading The Martian. Weir fully embraces Watney’s more abrasive traits:

Plastic might not burn, but anyone who’s played with a balloon knows it’s great at building up static charge. Once I do that, I should be able to make a spark just by touching a metal tool.

Fun fact: This is exactly how the Apollo 1 crew died. Wish me luck!

Additionally, being unintentionally and retroactively trolled by his crewmates, who left behind USB keys of Disco music and the entire series runs of Three’s Company and The Dukes of Hazzard as well as a fairly limited selection of multimedia distractions, was rather hilarious.

Without wanting to spoil too much, I did find a few instances where the narrative slipped a bit for me. For the most part, the novel is an effective mix of styles, employing first-person narration through Watney’s Mars-based logs and third-person narration for everything off-planet. However, in a couple of instances, Weir would stand outside of Watney’s head and watch his actions from above with a more esoteric style of prose than what’s used at any other point in the narrative (this is specifically the case—slight spoiler alert—when he rolls his vehicle on approach to his final destination). This slightly awkward change in tone doesn’t hurt the overall book, but it is momentarily distracting.

The Martian is a hell of a read. Weir’s pacing sits quite comfortably in that oft-occupied space between literary work and Hollywood summer blockbuster—more intelligently written and nuanced than the majority of popcorn fiction I’ve read in recent years, but still identifiably pop excitement in every sense. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Review: The Bear, by Claire Cameron

17669036>>Published: February 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2014

So I sit with my cheeks touching hers and I am finally safe and I start to feel hot tears because of all the yelling and I’m hungry and tired and Coleman wasn’t good and Daddy is so mad he is staying away. And hot tears come out and so does snot and my breath goes huff because I am so glad that I am safe now and can sit with my cheek on Momma’s cheek. I hear a little sniffle and I look and her eyes are teary too. I watch one water fill up and then it slides out the slanty side and down the side of her face and into her hair. Yellow hair that goes out over the plants and shines more than a leaf. She has blue eyes that are like mine even if everyone says Sticky looks more like her so when I look in her eyes it’s like I can see what mine look like on my head. Same color. We checked in the bathroom mirror when I stood on the sink and she held me so I wouldn’t fall and we leaned in and looked at our eyes up close. The color of our eyes is called blue but is really gray with a piece of darker blue around the outside and then lighter color in the middle. Except not as much in the middle as the black part that is a hole that I see through. Sticky has the same eyes too. Both of us have Momma’s eyes in our head. And she looks at me and she doesn’t wipe her tears. That is usually what she does even though she doesn’t cry very many times. But she wipes tears quickly because then I can’t see and maybe she hides them and no one knows the secret of crying. She is crying and she doesn’t hide the secret of me crying by trying to take my tears away.

***

While sitting here and working on this review, I’m struck with an unfortunate bit of déjà vu: the second review I wrote back when I first started this blog in October 2010 was for Emma Donoghue’s Room, which told the story of a young boy and his mother confined in a home—prisoners of a sexual predator. Room’s narrative unfolded entirely from the perspective of its five-year-old protagonist. Similarly, Claire Cameron’s The Bear, though telling a much different tale, is told exclusively from the eyes and mind of Anna, a young girl of five going on six. And like Room, The Bear is a riveting tale written in an exhausting, often maddening style.

An author’s note at the very beginning of the book sets the stage: The Bear is a fiction based on a partial reconstruction of events in 1991, when a young couple out camping in Algonquin Park was attacked and murdered by a bear. From what was pieced together in the aftermath of the incident, the couple seemingly did nothing to provoke the bear, making the attack that much more frightening. Cameron takes this event and ratchets up the emotional stakes by adding a pair of children: the aforementioned Anna, and her younger brother Alex—Stick.

The time to action in The Bear is immediate—shit hits the fan right away as Anna and her brother are unexpectedly whisked away by their father and stuffed in a Coleman cooler as a large black bear first attacks and mortally wounds their mother, and then proceeds to kill and dismember their father. After the bear is unsuccessful at getting into the cooler, the children are able to make their eventual escape, coming across their barely alive mother who urges Anna to take Alex and make for their canoe, to get off the island and back to the mainland where they can be saved.

The novel is split neatly into four sections—three parts and an epilogue that takes place twenty years after the fact. Each of the first three parts has an identifiable purpose to it: escape, survival, and recovery/moving on. While I greatly appreciated the speed at which the plot moved, and the slight transitions in tone offered by each section, for the most part I found The Bear an exhausting experience—not because of the harrowing nature of the plot, but because I lost patience with the writing. To be blunt: I never bought the voice.

I had the same response reading The Bear as I did reading Room: by the mid-point I was tired, impatient, and frustrated; by the end, I was just happy to be done. I found myself wanting to skim the already slim 217-page novel just to bypass some of the more egregious stream of consciousness-style writing that succeeds, unfortunately, in removing most of the tension from the proceedings.

Basically it comes down to feeling as if the author is writing “down” the protagonist in a deliberate attempt to force a child’s perspective and internal voice. Problem being that Anna doesn’t ever come across like a five-year-old but more as an infant of two or three who has absolutely no awareness as to what’s going on around her. Instead her mind is flooded with long, meandering, sometimes nonsensical asides that read less like a child traumatized by the situation and more as if she is suffering from ADHD. Things like anthropomorphizing a Coleman cooler seemed strangely unbelievable for a child that “old”—it’s quite likely I’m projecting, but I remember knowing what inanimate objects were by an age younger than five—and her distance from the reality of what is happening to her parents is also strangely unbelievable; a child may not understand life and death to a significant degree, but fear… fear is definitely understood. Anna’s asides strip away so much of her grounding that I found I felt none of her fear—confusion, yes, but not fear.

Like my experience with Room, I struggled to read The Bear without wanting to filter Anna’s language through my own experiences—what little I remember (i.e.: I never spoke to my stuffed animals as if they were alive, so Anna treating her stuffed teddy bear Gwen like it was something that could show as much love as she put into it rang false for me). It felt in the length of its asides and the frequency in which Anna was distracted down a long chain of memories and barely-related ideas too much like an adult doing what they could to enact a child’s voice—so much so that in the end the author squashed her protagonist’s emotional ties to the threat at hand and whatever instinct might have taken over in the moment.

Of course it’s also very possible that this frustration and impatience I felt while reading The Bear is indicative of something larger within—a latent impatience and distance felt to children in general. In other words, reading this book makes me think I’d be one of those fathers counting the minutes until his kids are old enough to have real conversations with. So take this rambling complaint with several grains of salt.

I did appreciate that the forced perspective afforded a natural degree of ambiguity to certain things, like the marital difficulties of the parents prior to arriving at the island. Cameron’s restraint in that matter was nicely handled and did an excellent job crafting a back-story without being overt about it. But while opening that small window into their past was effectively handled, it wasn’t enough to distract me from the remainder of the writing, which was almost entirely experiential, exchanging depth and resonance for the illusion of youth.

As an experiment, The Bear offers a unique premise handled with care, though the end result was simply not to my tastes.