Author: Marian Engel

Published: 1976

Genre: Fiction

About Bear: A summer assignment to a remote island gives a woman the chance to escape the job and the life she's beginning to hate.

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Book Review

Ok, I'll admit it. This book jumped to the top of my reading list after it was mentioned in Peter Darbyshire's list of the “10 most memorable sex scenes in Canadian literature”. How, I wondered, does one write about such a thing without horrifying people? And win a Governor General's award to boot?

Lou is an archivist, working for a historical institute in Toronto. Her love life is a matter of convenience with no romance, no passion, no love. Her job is becoming tedious and working with the past has made it difficult for her to live in the present. She's not happy.

Yet, when the weather turned and the sun filtered into even her basement windows, when the sunbeams were laden with spring dust and the old tin ashtrays began to stink of a winter of nicotine and contemplation, the flaws in her plodding private world were made public, even to her, for although she loved old shabby things, things that had already been loved and suffered, objects with a past, when she saw that her arms were slug-pale and her fingerprints grained with old, old ink, that the detritus with which she bedizened her bulletin boards was curled and valueless, when she found that her eyes would no longer focus in the light, she was always ashamed, for the image of the Good Life long ago stamped on her soul was quite different from this, and she suffered in contrast.

...from page 12

When the opportunity arises for her to spend the summer on an island in Northern Ontario, documenting the contents of a house that has been left to the institute, she's more than willing to take it. She thinks the trip will be a brief escape from her life but it ends up changing her in ways she could never have imagined.

There are many layers to this book and all sorts of symbolism. It would be fairly easy to write an essay discussing the house with its unusual shape and multiple floors or to compare and contrast Homer and the bear and Lou's relationship with each. I'm not going to do that though. I didn't read the book in order to study it, didn't read it because I had to. I read it because I was curious.

And I liked it, although some of it was deeply unsettling. At 141 pages, it was a quick read, almost a novella, but not an easy read. The writing was lyrical at times, blunt at others and sometimes, the bluntness was jarring. For me, the book was about finding the courage within yourself to change your life. Sure, Engel approached it in an unusual (and possibly disturbing) way but she also guaranteed that you'd never forget reading it.

Reviewed by Lynn Bornath.

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Added 25 July 2007.
Updated 23 August 2013.