Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review of The Bear by Claire Cameron: Harrowing yet insightful.

(This is from an electronic advanced reader copy from Netgalley, via the publisher.  This book will be on sale February 11, 2014.)

I guess I need to start by addressing my strange and urgent need to to read this novel. I saw a blurb and a link to Ms. Cameron's website for this book somewhere on my daily literary travels on the internet, and just felt a desire to obtain and read a copy of this book immediately.  Something about a wild animal/predatory attack on a human has always fascinated me and catches my ear and my imagination.  I've had an interest in sharks my entire life. Growing up on Long Island, learning to swim in the Sound, and seeing jaws at an early age struck some primal chord within my eight year old self.

A few years back, a very sad documentary came out by a German filmmaker, Werner Herzog,  about the bear enthusiast and nature lover, Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen years in Katmai National park in Alaska living among the wildlife and closely interacting with them. Treadwell filmed and focused on the bears in the park. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending; Treadwell and his girlfriend were eaten by the very bears they loved and wanted to protect. (You can learn more about the film here or read Roger Ebert's excellent review to learn more.). These bears are blameless, as are the sharks. We humans invade their territory and of they're hungry,thus they bite. Seeing the title of this novel and hearing the synopsis of it made me anxious to read it, as it brought to mind the aforementioned case, as well as a few other bear attacks over the last few years, even closer to home.

Another angle of this book that caught my attention was the fact that is told from the point of view of a five year old girl.  Most of my reader friends know about the phenomenal success of the Emma Donoghue novel, Room, in which the narrator is also a five year old, a boy, in terrible circumstances. A five year old narrator is not really looking back that far into their life; they are innocent and honest, unencumbered by too many cynical observations. Donoghue's story teller, Jack was eloquent and heartbreaking, and Ms. Donoghue did an excellent job with that. A five year old narrator can easily sound annoying, or worse, inauthentic.

Claire Cameron takes us on a camping trip the Whyte family: five year old Anna, baby brother Alex (he is three, so toddling and growing up, as she so often observes), and her parents. What happens to them is horrific, and the unfolding of the story is very much based around the actual bear attack in the darkest hours of the night. Anna describes the bear attack, mainly through what she hears and what she already knows in this world. Five year olds are sheltered. They are babies still, but on the cusp of having a different awareness of life. Anna also intuits there is a problem with her parents' marriage.  Her observations are frighteningly immediate, even if they are not anything like the observations of an adult. In fact, based on her previous experiences, she describes a very nuanced scene regarding the bear attack, her brother, their situation and her feelings.

This novel is very much about family, love, and the comfort of familiarity. These two children are so tuned in to themselves and their surrounding with all their senses: taste, smell, and touch,  as well as the obvious sight and sound, which all play a huge part in every thing they do. They survive off their primal child wit. And Anna's mental ability to handle fear and threats to their well being is absolutely believable and amazing at once.  Theirs is the kind of story you read in the paper or hear on the news, and your jaw drops. 

This was a book that evoked many emotions in me. There were tears of both sadness and happiness, and there were times when I just had to put the novel down.  This book reminds you what sponges children are, and how they latch on to every word spoken and every move made.  So teach them well, and they can survive.

5 stars

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