Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: The Bear, by Claire Cameron

I will always wonder what my impression of Claire Cameron’s new novel The Bear would have been had it not included an author’s note at the beginning. The book tells the story of five-year-old Anna who is camping in Algonquin Park with her parents and her almost-three-year-old brother Alex (nicknamed “Stick”) in 1991 when their camp is attacked by a bear. Her parents are killed but she and Stick survive after her father hides them in a Coleman cooler in the moments just before his death. Most of the rest of the novel details Anna and Stick’s journey of survival in the park until they are rescued. In her foreword, Cameron details the inspiration for the story: she was in her late teens working as a guide in Algonquin Park in 1991 around the same time that a couple was killed in a very similar manner. Haunted by the tragedy, she wanted to write a novel about it, and added the fictitious kids.

This author’s note provides quite a bit of context for this but also does a lot of the work for the reader – work that I wish Cameron had left me to do on my own. Because her novel is a first-person narration told from the perspective of a five-year-old, much of what occurs during the bear attack and its aftermath is oblique. Anna’s vocabulary and insights into what has happened are understandably limited, and part of the joy of reading this book, I suspect, would have been to parse out the events as they unfolded through Anna’s still-developing consciousness, with only the novel’s title and a bit of spoiler-free jacket copy as guides.

But since the foreword takes this possibility away, the reader needs to find his literary jouissance elsewhere. The author’s intention seems to be for us to marvel at how accurately she captures the inner world of a five year old, and for the most part Anna’s voice is bang on. Her syntactic peccadilloes ring true for her age—the repetition of terms, for example, and the substituting of adjectives for nouns—and her elisions as she and Stick try to find something to eat and some shelter for the night are very telling. Still, there are times when her narrative perspective slips. I’m not the first reviewer to point out that Anna seems to have a bit more history at her disposal than would be plausible – there are flashbacks to “that time” Stick went missing at the cottage, or “that time” he got a bee sting, that seem to span back longer than she would likely remember – and her vocabulary and ability to think metaphorically are a bit too advanced for a five year old.

But the one joy that comes through flawlessly in The Bear is the partial but telling view that Anna gives us on her parents’ relationship. We get little impression of them during the bear attack itself, but Anna slowly reveals – in her wonderfully imperfect way – that theirs had been a marriage on the skids. We know the couple embraced in a kind of gender essentialism: Daddy goes out and works; Momma stays home with the kids; Daddy is a source of discipline and bad tempers; Momma is the source of kindness and cuddles and nurturing. There is obviously something awry with the parents’ dynamic and we’re never quite told what it is. Are they struggling financially on one income? Has there been an extramarital temptation? Did the dad not really want kids but slowly comes to accept his familial responsibilities? We’re never told. But Cameron creates enough wiggle room for our imagination to fill in the blanks, and this a delightful thing to find in any novel.

And it should be said that The Bear’s achieves a deeply moving finish. The kids are eventually rescued and are taken into the care of their grandfather and a conscientious social worker. The grandpa is a devastating role in the novel: he is dealing with both his grief over the death of Anna’s parents and his need to care for these now orphaned children. There is a great scene where he is giving Anna a bath and braces her head in the water in the same manner that her mother did. It is a great moment of nurture that provides the young girl with a much-needed sense of continuity.

The Bear closes with Anna and Alex returning 20 years later to the site of their parents’ death, and Cameron wisely does not overplay the moment. The two are moved and nostalgic, but their response is deeply human rather than hokey. It’s a great ending to this emotionally rich if somewhat flawed novel.      

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