Bear by Marian Engel

Read: 2005

Lou is a recluse, working in a basement and rarely going out. After five years of living like a mole, she is given an assignment: to catalogue a 19th century library in northern Ontario. Soon after she arrives, she encounters the house’s only other inhabitant – a bear.

This is a rather shocking story about a woman exploring her sexuality with a bear. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, it’s graphic.

I read this book as an assignment for my Canadian Literature course in university – a course that prompted this émigré to define Canadian literature  as “roughing it in the bush with animals.”

Reading this book for a class was a great experience. We spent about two weeks on it, during which we had to discuss, as a class, sex with bears. By the end of the unit, our chairs were polished with the amount of uncomfortable shifting we were doing. The best part was that, at the beginning of the year, we all had to sign up to read a portion of a book (pages to be decided by the professor) in class. We got to pick the book, but of course no one had read Bear yet so no one knew to avoid it. I will always remember that poor girl who had to stand up before at least 50-60 people and read a scene in which a woman has sex with a bear. Her face would have blended in perfectly with a basket of tomatoes.

I initially enjoyed Bear because it was shocking. It was fun to tell my friends about what I was reading for class, and to watch their faces contort in wilful disbelief. But as time passed and I’ve had the chance to remove myself from the “omg, I’m going to be sick” factor, I’ve come to realize that Bear is actually a great work of fiction.

There’s an economy of elements to the book. No character is present who isn’t necessary to Lou’s psychological development. There are no filler scenes. I’ve also come to notice that much of the book is either symbolic or allegoric. Even the house Lou is living in, and her movements within that house throughout the story, can be reinterpreted in view of her transformation.

This is a really good book. It’s rather uncomfortable to read, but it’s short and you then get to say that you’ve read a book about a woman having sex with a bear.

Buy Bear from Amazon to support this blog (and bear sex)!