Narrating a novel in the first person using a child’s voice is tricky business. Unless a poetic route is taken, the author must necessarily “dumb down” their language for it to be believable yet make it compelling and insightful enough for readers to still get something out of it. The book which always immediately springs to mind when this topic comes up is Emma Donoghue’s break-through novel “Room” about a five year old boy raised his whole life in a single room. Here the voice feels authentic and tender, drawing you to fully see the world through the boy’s eyes while getting hints of the darker machinations at work beyond the child’s limited understanding. Cameron takes on the daunting task of also giving a straight-forward narrative told from the perspective of a five year old named Anna. She and her two year old brother who she nicknames “Stick” are suddenly thrown into a perilous situation where Anna is responsible for their survival.
Claire Cameron opens her novel “The Bear” with a note summarizing a factual incident which occurred in October 1991 on an island in a national park in Central Ontario. A couple on a camping trip experienced a fatal bear attack which left the public baffled and nervous because it is very rare for bears to attack without provocation. Her fictional re-imagining of this event throws two children into the mix who don’t understand the full horror of the situation. The real drive of this novel is whether the extremely young children will survive having suddenly found themselves alone and isolated in nature. The gravity of the violence and peril happening around them is experienced as if fuzzily in a side view mirror as the protagonist is entrenched in the minutiae of her suffering and tumultuous emotions.
For me, the build up and resolution are the high points of this short quick novel as these contain the most thrilling aspects. The rest is somewhat treading water as Anna and her brother stumble around grasping for sustenance from a tin of cookies or dodgy berries found in the woods and dealing with a seemingly never-ending amount of excrement from Stick. Of course, this is realistic but doesn’t make for the most interesting read. Anna’s narration veers from the mostly mundane to somewhat improbable leaps of language and metaphors: “A mosquito stuck a straw into my skin to drink from me like a juice box.” In instances like this the narrative feels too laboured and like a grown woman is creatively presenting how a child might view the world rather than believably inhabiting it. However, the majority of the text bumps along at a steady pace with flashes of real horror as the children alternatively have encounters with the predator and stumble across severed limbs.
The most touching aspects of the novel is the way the relationship is portrayed between Anna and Stick. Since the two year old boy has such little grasp of language he has his own words and sounds for things which only Anna can understand. The bond between them believably veers from lovingly close to fierce antagonism. The possibility that Stick might meet his end through his sister’s exasperation with him rather than the natural elements creates a heightened tension. Abandoned on her own Anna discovers she must quickly adopt a much more adult sensibility if they are going to survive. The representation of this unnaturally rapid development and the resounding consequences of it are handled well making “The Bear” a moving (if still somewhat frustrating) read.