Bear managed to shock readers and critics alike when it released in 1976, inviting both controversies and a cult following. Often labelled “the most controversial Canadian novel ever written”, author Marian Engel’s fifth book went on to win the Governor General's Literary Award the same year.
Bear centres around the story of Lou, a young librarian and archivist, who is employed to catalogue the library of an old manor in Northern Ontario. Largely spending her days alone in this pastoral quarantine, Lou encounters an actual bear living on the property and falls deeply in love with it... “not a toy bear, not a Pooh bear, not an airlines Koala bear. A real bear.”
I read it mid-pandemic when like most others I was left to my own devices, after Daunt Books reprinted and distributed the book for the first time in its “mission to unearth overlooked classics by women writers”. So, it’s not surprising that the novel left a lasting impact on my psyche. No ursine lover to keep me company during Covid-19, alas.
A simple Google search of the various Bear covers over the years will tell you what you’re signing up for when you’re about to start reading this book, but the idea is to go beyond your revulsion (one critic had called it “a Faustian compact with the Devil”), and allow the novel to compel you to scratch its surface carefully to discover the powerful themes – female sexual liberation, colonialism, and our relationship with nature – the book tackles during its length.
As Lou begins to spend more time with the bear next to the fireplace in the house while she works, she and we readers begin to notice how dangerous and farcical the creature is at the same time, like most things masculine. There’s a subtle settler-indigenous equation at play here too – hinting at the dispossession and appropriation of indigenous lives as city dwellers move in, and the “settler-colonial impulse to claim connection to the land”. Bear is erotic, ambiguous, provocative by design, but its beauty is that it succeeds both as a feminist text and delicious campy literature.
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