Few writers are brave enough to write from the perspective of a small child, and even fewer would throw their young narrators into the middle of a ghastly murder. With The Bear, Canadian writer Claire Cameron does just that: using a real-life bear attack in an Ontario provincial park as the basis for a story of survival. It’s a thrilling premise, but the decision to tell it from a child’s point of view proves an Achilles heel, destroying the tension with clumsy prose and bloating the novel with unnecessary tangents.
After her mother and father are viciously killed by a black bear, 5-year-old Anna finds herself alone with her toddler brother, Alex. Unable to understand what has happened, the young girl attempts to escape the animal and make sure Alex survives. Told in the present tense, The Bear oscillates between Anna’s struggle and her memories of her normal life, further fleshing out her family’s history and her relationship with her brother.
On the one hand, Anna’s memories provide much needed backstory, allowing Cameron to show a fully formed family and make sure Anna’s parents are multi-dimensional. Unfortunately, these recollections also destroy any tension The Bear manages to build. Anna is old enough to know that being alone in the woods without her parents is a bad thing, yet Cameron doesn’t seem sure whether Anna is aware of what has happened to her parents or blissfully ignorant). Her brother’s survival—as well as her own—is the sole conflict of this short novel, so anytime the plot moves away from that (to focus on Alex’s love of cookies, for example), the book deflates.
Anna’s memories also hurt the narrative voice itself. The trick to writing as a small child is figuring out how to incorporate complex concepts into a small amount of language and some personal idiom. Cameron struggles with this, at certain points giving Anna great insight, at others giving her cadence a singsong quality and adding some grammatical mistakes. Having her shift back and forth between quotidian stories of her daily life and her time in the woods only aggravates this discrepancy. It makes the narration inconsistent and unbelievable.
Most of this seems due to Cameron’s need to fill out the book to make it novel-length. The Bear would have made an amazing 20-page tale, ending about halfway through the existing novel. As it is, the book meanders when it should be a taut thriller, forcing the reader to worry whether these children will make it out alive. It’s problematic that Anna seems lost in her thoughts, rather than in the terrifying moment she inhabits. Cameron may have hit the word count to make a novel, but she loses the story along the way.