Bear by Marian Engel is a deliciously weird tale about an unconventional love affair and the perils of solitude – Laura Waddell

A curious little novel originally published in the mid-70s, Bear by Marian Engel, has been given new life in a reissue by publishing house Daunt Books.

A lonely librarian and a bear find love in a novel written in the mid-1970s but recently reissued (Picture: Dani Pozo/AFP via Getty Images)

Bear tells the story of Lou, a studious librarian employed by a historical institute who, beginning to fear her peaceful, dutiful life in the archives has dulled her senses to the living world somewhat – and lacking in the romantic department – jumps at the chance to get out of the basement by taking on a special residential project.

She decamps to a tiny island off the Canadian mainland, to live in a house built by a local eccentric who has bequeathed the property and all its contents to the institute.

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With the help of locals from nearby islands who sail over and drop off groceries once a week, and teach her how to sail and fish, Lou anticipates an enjoyable few months cataloguing books and papers, while looking out for first editions and rarities.

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But there is one catch. A bear lives on the property. A bear that, when standing on his hind legs, has the stocky bearing of a fully grown man equipped with claws and teeth. Tentatively, Lou feeds and waters the bear, who is chained up in a courtyard and spends much of his time snoozing.

Creeping ever closer, she gains the courage to pet the bear’s soft fur and to let him wander down to the water, where he sits down and sighs happily. The bear is docile enough that Lou lets her guard down, and before long he is shambling into the property to sit by the fire while she works. An unconventional love affair has begun.

“She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.”

Amidst all the folkloric scenes of swimming and sleeping beside the bear’s warm fur is a warning about the perils of solitude – too much of it and one can get quite carried away. Bear is a deliciously weird tale of what might happen when left alone with nature.

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