Animal attraction: Bear, the controversial story of one woman’s sexual awakening squib

First published in the 70s, Marian Engel’s novel about a lonely librarian’s relationship with a bear interrogates boundaries between men and women, humans and animals

What do you think of when you think of a bear? A large, lumbering creature, unpredictably violent? Perhaps you think of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s jaw-dropping film about a man killed by one of the creatures he so adored? Do you think of the bearded, heavy-set man contrasted, in the informal typology among gay men, with the skinnier, more feminine twink? Or perhaps you think of a cuddly toy?

When Lou, the narrator of Marian Engel’s 1976 novel, Bear, meets a real bear, she finds that “its nose was more pointed than she expected – years of corruption by teddy bears, she supposed”. He is no cuddly toy, but she becomes surprisingly intimate with him. Lou is an archivist in a dusty Canadian Historical Institute. Her life has become narrow and joyless, punctuated by perfunctory sex with the institute’s director. New horizons beckon, however; the institute has been granted the estate of Colonel Jocelyn Cary: an island, with a house containing a large library. The colonel’s English ancestor had served in the Napoleonic wars, and nursed fantasies of living on an island. Cary’s Island is no longer a romantic outpost for colonial adventuring, but a tourist destination – and the estate remains intact, complete with a resident bear.

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