Published by Doubledays Canada on February 11th, 2014
Source: Ottawa Library
While camping with her family on a remote island, five-year-old Anna awakes in the night to the sound of her mother screaming. A rogue black bear, 300 pounds of fury, is attacking the family's campsite, pouncing on her parents as prey.
At her dying mother's faint urging, Anna manages to get her brother into the family's canoe and paddle away. But when the canoe dumps the two children on the edge of the woods, and the sister and brother must battle hunger, the elements, and a dangerous wilderness, we see Anna's heartbreaking love for her family--and her struggle to be brave when nothing in her world seems safe anymore.
Told in the honest, raw voice of five-year-old Anna, this is a riveting story of love, courage, and survival.
I was intrigued by The Bear by Claire Cameron as soon as I saw it on a bookstore shelf: a very simple book cover which features the silhouette of two young children contrasting with the huge title, written in awkward, ill-assured characters. The Bear‘s title, hovering above the two kids running, gave me a creepy feeling.
And for a good reason: the book’s plot was inspired by a tragedy which happened back in 1991, when a couple of campers were killed for no apparent reason by a massive bear in the Algonquin Park, Ontario. Claire Cameron decided to tell us a similar story, except she added two children and made the eldest one, a five year-old little girl, the narrator of it all.
The Bear isn’t advertised as a horror fiction or even tagged as such on GoodReads, but I do believe it qualifies as one. The novel is a survival story, in which two children of two and five witness the unspeakable, namely the death of their parents, and struggle to escape the “big black dog” that seems to follow them. I couldn’t put this book down because those two little ones, lost in the wild, starved and sunburnt, wouldn’t get out of my head. The idea was so utterly disturbing that I couldn’t do anything else but keep reading to know if they would end up fine. In this respect, The Bear is so far one of the most riveting novels I read this year.
However, I was disappointed by a few aspects of the book. Quite unfortunately, I simply disliked the little girl Anna. The main reason is her extreme hostility to her little brother, and the absurd competition she is leading, on her own, for her parents’ attention. Certainly, siblings can be jealous of one other, but this constant hostility against the oblivious two year-old didn’t feel right or believable. Neither did the children’s behaviour, in some parts of the book: I couldn’t believe some of the children’s reactions, especially given Anna’s age. It feels to me that a five-years-old child is able to distinguish cries of fear and panic from a scold or an argument. Or identify “meat attached to a shoe” for what it is. Or recognizing her pale, bleeding mother laying in the grass as being, to say the least, unwell. This is the first, very early moment in the book where the behaviour of Anna didn’t convince me and it kept happening. I think she is old enough to connect the dots (animal growls, parents’ screams, scattered limbs and mother unable to stand up) and display an appropriate reaction: fear, panic, terror, or anything similar. Instead, she shows an impressive lack of understanding, as if she was living in a semi-imaginary world.
Maybe this is supposed to be Anna’s unconscious coping strategy or state of shock, but I didn’t feel the book was implying this, so I just couldn’t quite connect with Anna and her choices.
Finally, I found the narration inconsistent. Writing in the point of view of a five year-old is certainly a challenge, but novels like Room by Emma Donoghue have shown it can really work. In The Bear, Anna sometimes expresses herself in a very childish way, then in a surprisingly mature, insightful fashion, and throughout the book, anywhere between those two extremes. It made the character of Anna even more unbelievable to me.
All in all, The Bear by Claire Cameron is a riveting, terrifying novel that suffers from a rather unconvincing main character. As the story unfolds, you find yourself unable to stop reading, worried sick for these two little children. Unfortunately, Anna’s inconsistent narration tends to disrupt your immersion in the story. It’s still a pleasant read and I was surprised to be actually more scared, reading this book, than I’ve been reading any actual horror novel recently. I would be interested in reading another book by Claire Cameron, but to be honest, this debut novel wasn’t entirely satisfying.