The Bear by Claire Cameron

In October 1991, Raymond Jakubauskas and Carola Frehe were killed by a bear whilst camping in Algonquin Park, Canada. An a examination of the scene provided no rationale – investigators were left to assume, as Cameron says in her introduction, that the bear had ‘decided to take a chance on a new source of food.’ She continues, ‘What is most frightening about this explanation is the idea that there is no blame to place on either the people or the bear. Identifying fault can comfort us…’ And Cameron is right. When something terrible happens, we want reasons. We want something or someone to blame, so that we can shelter ourselves from the possibility of recurrence.

Two children, five-year old Anna and her two-year old brother, Stick, are on a canoe and camping trip with their parents when a bear attacks. Her parents are killed, and she is left trying to obey her mother’s dying injunction to get herself and her brother into the canoe and away. The narrative makes it clear that the family are experienced campers, that they know the area well, that they have come on the trip prepared. There is no blame upon which the reader could root their understanding. And as a novel, The Bear is equally uncompromising – there’s no conspiracy to uncover, no reason why this horror should have been visited upon this particular family. Neither is the attack a catalyst for reveals about the dynamics of the family relationships. Like the eponymous bear, the novel is what it is, offering neither reason nor explanation.

The narrative voice is Anna’s, and the horror comes from the fact that the adult reader understands what is happening when Anna herself does not. When Anna refers to ‘tomato juice’ on the bear’s jaws, or to the ‘scrape, pop, smack’ noises outside the huge cool box in which Anna and Stick are hiding, the reader is left in no doubt about the parents’ fate. This device of the child narrator isn’t new, but Cameron uses it effectively. In Anna’s voice, she creates a prism of despair through which the reader is forced to view Anna and Stick’s unconscious battle for survival. For me, though, the interest lies not in the what or the how, but the why. We know Anna survives – she’s narrating. The power of The Bear is in its subtle exploration of what it means to be human in the face of random horror, when the insulation of explanation and blame are denied.

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