It is very unlike me to leave reviewing a book till almost a year after I have read it, yet with Claire Cameron’s debut novel The Bear I almost felt I needed quite a distance from it. Not actually that this is a new review written from nothing this morning – though they never are – these thoughts were started when I was reading it, then tweaked after I had finished and then I needed to think about it more. This is because, for me, The Bear is one of those books that really divided me whilst reading it, straight after finishing it and then in the months after that. It was also one of the books I was most excited about reading in 2014, it had me and my expectations from the blurb…
Anna is five. Her little brother, Stick, is almost three. They are camping with their parents in Algonquin Park, in three thousand square miles of wilderness. It’s the perfect family trip. But then Anna awakes in the night to the sound of something moving in the shadows. Her father is terrified. Her mother is screaming. Then, silence. Alone in the woods, it is Anna who has to look after Stick, battling hunger and the elements to stay alive.
I don’t normally start a book review with a blurb as I find it useful to try and rewrite one that I think is more fitting to my experience of the book. However I think the blurb of The Bear is pretty much perfect both in the stop-start simplistic yet precise style it has to it and because it sets up the incredibly high octane start to the book for any reader. The beginning of The Bear is some of the most arresting, thrilling then chilling and unsettling fiction that I have read in quite some time. Even if it written in the voice of a five year old child.
The reason I put ‘even if’ in that final sentence is because I have serious issues with books told from the perspective of a narrator under the age of eleven. Admittedly there are the occasional exceptions; however the rule of thumb is that they make my skin crawl. You see they tend to fall into one of two camps, firstly there is the precocious tone that is generally used (because apparently kids telling stories can only be the precocious ones) or secondly there is the case of an author feeling they are being clever or edgy using this style and actually coming across as a pompous/pretentious arse. Claire Cameron doesn’t fall into either of these clichés; she is one of the exceptions.
Admittedly I was worried that Anna might get on my nerves a little, yet Claire Cameron uses her voice very wisely. Her initial masterstroke is that things happen very quickly from the off, so whatever narrative the book could have been written you would be hooked. What gives it the extra dimension and power is, and this is something that the best authors do with child narrators, it tells you some horrific things very naively and leaves us to fill in the blank/grey areas with our own horrid little imaginations. It is very skilfully done.
I also think this works even more in the narrators favour as because we have put our adult selves back in the position of a small child we also reach for our own nostalgic fears. Who wasn’t scared of potentially being lost in the woods (or indeed even Waitrose) as a small child? Who doesn’t occasionally imagine there could be a shark in the swimming pool as a thirty three year old… oh… this got awkward, moving on. This means we are further on Anna’s side, well you would have to be quite a dark soul not to be anyway as she’s lost in the middle of a wood with a bear with a taste for blood and her little brother to protect, and so by default become all the more desperate that she is safe. Even those of us with hearts made of coal will find ourselves becoming somewhat endeared to her the more we read.
Also there is more wind and I feel a little colder on my legs. It is going to be night-time and we need to get to our safe place. I pull on Stick’s arm so he will stand up and come because I think no more water on my legs it’s too so we walk over to the trees part. It is darker because the trees are spread out like a roof all over the top. Our safe place can be at the cottage because we have two beds. Or Toronto and we need to find it. We walk in there for a little bit and my feet don’t hurt until a pine needle decides to prick them ouch. Mostly they don’t prick only a few mean ones. Stick gets them too because he says ‘owey’ and stops and makes me look at his foot.
You may have sensed it, BUT there is a ‘but’ coming. The tension at the start is epic and somewhere in the middle it seems to suddenly run out. I honestly thought I had missed a chapter or two as the tension suddenly started at the end again because I felt like for a good third (maybe even a little more) of the book we were somewhat stuck in a limbo and getting nowhere. This may have been the idea yet bar a small moment of some tree rustling the drive and indeed sense of peril seemed to vanish. I soon learnt that there is only so much cookie and berry hunting, and indeed descriptions of toddler’s soiling themselves that I could take. It wasn’t the narrative, in fact that pulled me through, it was more that I felt a bit bored. This again could have been the intention as the tension rockets up again at the end, I just thought Cameron could have given us moments of the beginning throughout, after all wouldn’t a five year old be pooing themselves at everything – physically they were but mentally too you would think?
This has been my dilemma in the past year. Oddly The Bear reminds me of a book that I have never read, bear with me, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. That particular McEwan novel is meant to have one of his best opening chapters, something to do with a balloon, yet apparently from then on is a little bit pedestrian after such a full on start and feels like a corking writer making what should just be a short story turn into a full novel. That is how I felt with The Bear. I will never forget the opening pages, Cameron is clearly a brilliant writer, it just maybe needed to be left a short story or had a few extra moments jaw dropping tension to match the promise it held at the off. Read it for the opening pages alone you won’t forget them I am still thinking about them months on; though don’t plan to go camping anytime afterwards.
I definitely want to read more of her work, I wonder if her debut The Line Painter will come out over here at any point, it looks properly creepy, I will look forward to whatever comes next. Who else has read The Bear and if so what did you make of it?