“The shocking, erotic novel of a woman in love, a startlingly alive narrative of the forbidden, the unthinkable, the hardly imaginable”. This was the quote on the cover of Marian Engel’s novel Bear, when it came out in paperback in 1977, emblazoned above an image of a topless woman, perkily-breasted, swaying ecstatically in the embrace of a large brown bear a bit like a grizzly James Bond without the tux.
Later editions of this completely nutty but oddly beguiling fantasy of a woman who falls in love - and has sex - with a bear reflected publishing trends of the times: a naked woman’s back with bloodied claw marks across it, a woman’s mouth oozing honey voluptuously from her lips, and then a chaste image of a hurricane lantern against a simple pink striped background.
But incredibly, despite winning the Governor General’s Award and considered a classic in Canada, Bear has never been published in the UK. So good on Daunt Books for rising to the challenge with this new edition, boasting an ambiguous if tasteful cover depicting a hand ruffling an expansive brown furry surface that might just as easily be a rug. Quotes are from Margaret Atwood and Daisy Johnson, with Atwood describing the story as “plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale”. Not sure about the kitchens, but a shapely folktale it certainly is.
The story is that of shy, friendless librarian, Lou, who has worked in the basement of the local Heritage Institute in Toronto for five years. She has weekly, joyless sex on her desk with the institute’s director, ‘her only human contact’, out of habit and convenience. When news that the legal wrangling has finally been settled over a bequest from a deceased benefactor, Colonel Cary, leaving the remote Cary Island in Northern Ontario to the institute, Lou is dispatched to catalogue the library and contents of the house on the island.
‘For some time, things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem. Rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey,’ she reflects as she arrives.
Settling into the house, which far from being the log cabin she expected, turns out to be an elegant, classic Fowler’s octagon with wide verandas and huge fireplaces, but no electric light or central heating, she is stunned at ‘such a wildly happy find’. There is also of course, the bear, which has been kept tethered on a long chain, living in a shed at the back.
When Lou first encounters him, he is described as ‘a dusty bulk of blackish fur’, with ‘a long brown snout’, ‘small sad eyes’, and though ‘indubitably male’, also ‘not at all menacing’. An ancient local woman tells Lou that if she wants to bond with the bear she’ll have to defecate next to him, which she duly does. Soon she is letting him off the chain, allowing him into the house and sleep by the fire near her, while she toils at her typewriter. She begins to observe ‘his long, ridged, curling tongue’, while reading up in the library on the genitalia of Ursus, and discovering morels growing in the woods like ‘strange decayed phalluses’. Uh oh! We can guess where this is heading.
Soon they are frolicking in the water, she naked, rubbing her hands and feet through his musky pelt, while, yes, his tongue takes on a life of its own. The sex scenes are - how to say this - unlike any kitchen I’ve ever come across. Even the landscape has ‘its own orgasms of summer weather’.
Ecstatic at her new life - she has gone pretty native - she believes she has fallen for the beast. “‘Bear,’ she cried. ‘I love you. Pull my head off’” she implores him at one point. The poor old bear does his best to please, but the truth is he can’t really be arsed. He is, after all, only a bear, and as summer begins to draw to a close, so does Lou’s fantasy.
These are the projections of a true feminist of her time. Terminally disappointed by men, she has rejected them along with the trappings of civilization, believing that nature is better, somehow purifying and cleansing. But nature, as even this feminist discovered, can be disappointing too. What a brilliant little gem.
Bear by Marian Engel (Daunt Books, £9.99)