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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Bear

by
Marian Engel


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Bear



Title: Bear
Author: Marian Engel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1976
Length: 122 pages
Availability: Bear - US
Bear - UK
Bear - Canada
Bear - India
Ours - France
Bär - Deutschland
L'Orso - Italia
Oso - España

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Our Assessment:

A : lovely, well-balanced work

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
National Post A+ 8/12/2014 Emily M. Keeler
The NY Times Book Rev. A 15/8/1976 Doris Grumbach
El País A 27/5/2015 Alberto Manguel
TLS . 1/4/1977 Jane Miller
Die Zeit . 18/11/1988 Michael Querbach


  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The reason Bear is the greatest Canadian novel of all time is not because I, a 27-year-old woman with a piss poor sense of the boundaries between work and life, found it relatable. Bear is great because of what it manages to do through language in its meagre 115 pages. Engelís prose turns swiftly from the comic to lyric and back again" - Emily M. Keeler , National Post

  • "(S)pare, wry and altogether extraordinary (.....) Odd ? Oh, yes. (...) It is futile in precis or paraphrase to attempt to capture the persuasive power of Marian Engel's fiction. (...) What we have here is clean and simple, implicative and sonorous, illuminated by an artist's imaginative power." - Doris Grumbach, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Sin lugar a dudas, Oso es una obra maestra de la literatura canadiense, y también de la literatura erótica universal." - Alberto Manguel, El País

  • "The novel is a parable, of course, but it persuades through the details of the place and the feelings it inspires. Marian Engel writes with a fine lucidity of mysteries perceived and not glorified." - Jane Miller, Times Literary Supplement.

  • "Die eigenwillige und eigentümliche Geschichte eines aufregenden, lehrreichen Scheiterns." - Michael Querbach, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Bear is essentially a (transforming) summer-in-the-life novel. Canadian librarian Lou works at the Historical Institute, and when the legal wranglings about the disposition of an estate are finally over she is charged with assessing what exactly the Institute has inherited, and how it might be utilized. A Colonel Jocelyn Cary had left an estate, Pennarth, on Cary's Island, to the Institute, and it was said to contain: "a large library of materials relevant to early settlement in the area".
       Lou packs her things and travels to the island in mid-May, to inspect and inventory the property, and she winds up staying through the entire summer (and rather longer than she strictly needs to). A local, Homer Campbell, is her contact person, familiar with the property and helpful with what she needs to get by -- including some supplies. Her home for the summer is both old-fashioned elegant and rustic, with neither central heating nor electricity. The library includes a few valuable pieces, but on the whole is relatively unexceptional. And there's also a bear, kept on a chain -- "It's there, and it belongs to the place", Homer explains. Yes: "There had always, it seemed, been a bear".
       Lou likes her situation:

Without giving up her work (which she loved), she was deposited in one of the great houses of the province, at the beginning of the summer season and in one of the great resort areas. She was somewhat isolated, but she had always loved her loneliness. And the idea of the bear struck her as joyfully Elizabethan and exotic.
       The inheritance turns out to be a bit of a dud:
What the Institute needed was not a nice house, or a collection of zoological curiosa but material to fill in the history of settlement in the region.
       There are odds and ends of historical and family interest that Lou uncovers along the way, but clearly all this isn't quite the boon the Institute had hoped for. Lou, however, enjoys her experiences, a mix of using her book- and historical-expertise and coping with a very different way of living -- even if she is unsuccessful in many ways, from her attempts at gardening to fishing.
       And there is, of course, the bear. Approaching it warily at first, she quickly gets used to it, and it to her. She takes it off its chain, goes swimming with. And, yes, she gets more intimate with it. The pleasuring is mostly cunnilingual, but the bear knows what it's doing:
And like no human being she had ever known it persevered in her pleasure. When she came, she whimpered, and the bear licked away her tears.
       The bear remains largely inscrutable, but that also allows Lou to make of it what she wants. The two very different creatures find comfort in physical proximity and, yes, Bear is a love story, of very odd sorts.
       Bear is notorious for being about that -- woman has sex with a bear ! -- but really that is only one part and facet of what is a much richer novel. Not only is there more to it than the sex -- which itself is delicately and very well-handled -- but even just regarding Lou and the bear, it's the relationship that develops between the two -- cautious, halting, each remaining an enigma to the other -- that is far more interesting than just the sexual encounters. In making it what is essentially an impossible love -- and in portraying sex (in its broader senses -- one can hardly speak of any sort of simple 'sexual act' here) as the awkward, mystifying, lone experience it remains, regardless of partner -- Engel's presentation of carnality and human longing is exceptional.
       Lou's summer-stay, with the changing seasons and the coming and then going of the tourist-crowds -- nearby, but only somewhat intruding -- makes for a convenient narrative arc. It is, to put it simply, a summer of self-discovery for Lou, and she departs as a changed and more fully fledged person; she grows, as a woman and an individual. And Engel's art is in the simple description that proves to have great depth, beautifully balanced between the mundane and naturalistic, and the (always believable) unusual.
       This is a lovely piece of work -- and while the sensational premise is hard to overlook, the shorthand (bear-sex) by which everyone remembers the book, there really is considerably more to it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 May 2017

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Links:

Bear: Reviews: Marian Engel:
  • Marian Engel at Women Writing and Reading in Canada from 1950
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Marian Engel lived 1933 to 1985

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© 2017 the complete review

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