Sunday, December 13, 2015

Bear by Marian Engel

An academic researcher is sent into the woods

Lou, a woman most comfortable in the stacks of an urban library, who “does not like the cold air on her skin,” accepts an assignment to catalog the papers of the eccentric Colonel Cary. This means Lou must travel to remote Cary Island in the far north of Ontario to sift through books in the Colonel's large historically significant house. Lou is asked to perform one additional duty -- feed Colonel Cary’s pet bear, a smelly animal chained in the back. An ancient First Nations woman advises Lou to shit near the bear in order to establish a good relationship. Lou takes that advice, and enters into a deeper connection with the wordless very powerful strangely compelling bear.

I really loved this – an insane tale, told in perfectly modulated language, a fantastical fable embedded in a realistic straightjacket. Everything is recognizably, even proudly, Canadian: the silent imposing bear, the black flies and their bloody bites, the stiff upper lip. The woods. The imposition of western civilization on the wilderness is shown as sort of silly. The characters in this mythic story have a little wiggle room in their assigned roles, although the librarian definitely has to be a librarian, and the bear definitely has to be a bear. But the colonel is not quite a colonel. Lou starts to love being alone on Cary Island with the deteriorating books and the Colonel’s notes on bears and the completely at ease bear itself. That bear and his strikingly long strikingly thick tongue. Bears have tongues and bears have claws and the bear teaches Lou about both.

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