The Bear by Claire Cameron

In brief: A camping trip for Anna and her family goes horribly wrong. This is how five year old Anna and three year old Stick saw it.

The good: The beginning is jaw-droppingly horrific – not from what you read, but from what Anna is misunderstanding at the scene.

The not-so-good: I got a little sick of seeing everything through Anna’s young eyes.

Why I chose it: Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, copy from Net Galley and Vintage Books – thank you!

Year: 2014

Pages: 208 (ebook)

Publisher: Vintage Books

Setting: Canada

My rating: 6 out of 10

One of the reasons I like to try to read books on prize lists is that they expose me to different styles and genres, taking me out of my reading comfort zone. The Bear looked like it would be one of these titles, as it’s told in the first person of a child and deals with horrendous events (said child’s parents being eaten by a bear). I have strong memories of the effect Emma Donoghue’s Room had on me, so I thought I’d give this one a go. Plus, I trust the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges (and the Orange Prize judges before that) for good recommendations.

I tried to like this book. I tried. But something about this book and I are just incompatible. It wasn’t the horror of two children seeing their parents eaten (although the way Anna explains it, she didn’t really understand what was going on) or two small children left on their own in the wilderness. I quite liked Anna’s take on things (for example, she’s more concerned that her brother is stinky than being without their parents at time) but the narrative failed to entertain me. Is it because it’s told by a five year old and occasionally we get lapses into Scary Daddy and Barbies? Probably not. I quite like Barbie, but I thought Scary Daddy was under-explored – is he really scary or just to Anna? Is there anything sinister in that so that the reader doesn’t feel sorry for him? I think it’s because I got bored of Anna’s limited description and language (even though it did feel too sophisticated for a 5 year old at times), plus I barely ‘knew’ her parents. Sure their fate is awful, but all we know is Daddy can be scary and Mummy’s generally pretty nice.

Anna and Stick (also known as Alex) are interesting, but they weren’t enough to carry the book for me. Even after they set out in the canoe (Anna’s mum’s last words to her); I found things not terribly interesting because I knew at least one of them was going to be okay. (The contents told me so). They make the types of mistakes in the bush that kids would usually do unsupervised – eating strange berries, touching poisonous plants but there wasn’t a sense of urgency or worry for me. (I wonder if I was familiar with the Canadian woods if this would make a difference). I found the most interesting parts to be when the kids have been rescued and are adjusting to life without their parents. Anna’s reaction was interesting, particularly in response to Barbie; while Stick’s just showed how young he was. The ending was quite sweet too as the children try to make sense of what happened.

Even though I wasn’t keen on the storyline, Claire Cameron writes very well. This must have been a difficult book to write (it’s based on a true story), especially from a child’s point of view. It would have taken a lot of work to get Anna’s feelings and maturity just right on paper. I just didn’t have the reaction I was expecting from a book about trauma and loss. The Line Painter, Claire Cameron’s first book, looks to be more up my alley (a woman accepts a lift from a stranger which goes wrong), so I may give that a go.

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