Bear by Marian Engel was first published in 1976. Despite being rejected by Engel’s first publisher, it went on to win the prestigious Governor General’s Award and, despite the controversy caused by the bestiality in the book, is considered a classic in Canada. Margaret Atwood praises it as “a strange and wonderful book, plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale, and with the same disturbing resonance.” Therefore, Daunt Books are republishing Bear in an effort to bring its curious narrative to a new generation of readers and its off-beat story is sure to pique interest.
Lou is a librarian at a ‘heritage institute’, stuck in a dusty routine when she is sent to Cary Island, a remote location in the Canadian arctic, where the late Colonel Jocelyn Cary spent his final years. She is tasked with spending the summer studying and cataloguing the many books and other possessions he acquired and stored in his octagonal house, Pennarth (which is Welsh for “bear’s head”). She finds the house is also home to a bear, which she is now responsible for caring for as well.
Although her initial fear dies down, there is a constant sense of unease which causes the reader disquiet too. The bear is a predator, can it ever really be tamed?
Bear has a constant, burning energy that propels you through it. Lou’s character unfurls — at the beginning, she appears to be entirely on her own, then we discover the emotional turmoil of her past relationship and the regular sex between her and her boss. Despite her initial fears, Lou falls head over heels for the bear, no longing caring about the danger of cavorting with a wild animal, “Bear,’ she cried. ‘I love you. Pull my head off.”
Engel uses the character of the bear to explore patriarchy; the bear is much like a man – someone who can evoke both fear and excitement. Bear feels prescient as it sparks thoughts about women’s safety and what it means to go too far.
The narrative trickles through as Lou discovers Cary’s notes stuffed in books and learns more about his literary life and his studies on bears. The entire story being framed by Lou, a woman, investigating and preserving the life of Cary, a man, underlines how a man’s life is often presented as more interesting than a woman’s. It seems like the story might be leading us to discover some secret of Cary’s, but Bear is not really about Cary, it’s about Lou and the female experience.
Lou is frustrated by patriarchy, “what she disliked about men was not their eroticism, but their assumption that women had none. Which left women with nothing to be but housemaids”. The bear cares for her in a way that is new to her, “like no human being she had ever known it persevered in her pleasure. When she came, she whimpered and the bear licked away her tears.”
Although the bear pleasures Lou with his tongue which is “capable of lengthening itself like an eel”, the bear does not get an erection. She is frustrated that she cannot stir him. Although Lou becomes enamoured of him, it is not until he wounds her (with a perhaps accidental swipe of his sharp claws) that he becomes “something else – lover, God or friend”. The bear and Lou have an intimate connection yet, as he is an animal, she can never quite understand him, “There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy”.
The book is not just about sex with a bear, it pulls focus onto Lou’s discovery of herself. In the extremes of ice and isolation, Lou has time and space (and a bear) to help her reassess who she is. By moving from the city to the island, Lou reconnects with nature; the environment of the island is beautifully described, “The world was furred with late spring snow. It was the soft, thick stuff that excites you unless you are driving or half dead, packing snow already falling in caterpillars off the greening branches.” However, her turmoil might suggest that as a white woman on an island that was colonised, she is simply a “tourist”, like Cary was, who imposes herself on a place where she does not belong.
Bear is a delightful read, rich with thought-provoking representations of the dynamic between men and women, humans and nature and who has ownership over what.
Marian Engel, Bear, Daunt Books, 176pp, paperback