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.

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