The Bear by Claire Cameron
Published by Harvill Secker
13th February 2014
Mummy never screams. Mostly not ever. Except sometimes.
Anna is five. Her little brother, Stick, is almost three. They are camping with their parents in Algonquin Park, in three thousand square miles of wilderness. Something big is moving in the shadows. Her father is terrified. Her mother is screaming. Then, silence.
Alone in the woods, it is Anna who has to look after Stick, battling hunger and the elements to stay alive.
I can hear the air going in and out of my brother's nose. I am awake. He is two years old and almost three and he bugs me lots of times because I am five years old and soon I will be six but it is warm sleeping next to him. I call him Stick. He always falls asleep before me and I listen to the air of his nose. I can hear my parents' voices. They are further away than I can reach and whispering because they think I can't hear. I let out a squeak to let Mummy know I am awake and she says, 'We're right here' from too far away. I squeak again and the zipper undoes and I can see the sky in the crack. Her cool hand brushes my hair back and her fingers touch my cheek. 'Sssh, Anna,' she says, and the sky zips away again. When I am inside a tent the outside is far away.
The tent is blue and sniffs like dust. My parents have a fire because it is the end of summer and they are cooking something too and not sharing with me. Bacon. I love bacon. My tummy rumbles and I want bacon but it will make Daddy mad. I sniff Gwen teddy bear instead. She is brown and smells like us. I hear the air whistle when it leaves Sticky's nose. I feel nervous and I don't know why. The night will be dark soon. And it might be the meat is making my tummy weird. When we were back at the cottage, Sticky was chewing on bacon and he shoved another in his mouth and another and another. When Mummy saw she said 'chew your food' but Stick couldn't chew because his mouth was all full. He started to go red and his eyes got watery and I thought he was crying. I said, 'Ha ha, Alex's crying', and Mummy came and thumped him. A ball of bacon came out of his mouth. Mummy got Stick in trouble for not chewing and I looked at the meat. It had spit on it. I felt a barf in my mouth. And I didn't eat that bacon ball but it's making my tummy feel weird.
Wow! A book doesn't usually leave me lost for words, but the opening part of The Bear did. Graphic would be one of the words I would use to describe the start of this debut novel by Claire Cameron, gripping and horrifying are two others. In October 1991 a couple pitched their tent on an island in Algonquin Park near Toronto, Canada. They planned to stay for three days. When they failed to return their friends contacted the police. What the police found were the partially eaten remains of the couple but a large male black bear. No blame could be found for the attack, other than that the couple were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Claire Cameron worked as a summer camp counsellor in Algonquin Park in the summers of '91 and '92 and The Bear is based around her memories and research of the bear attack.
What Cameron does differently is, she adds children. And not grown-upish children who might be able to fend for themselves, but a five and two year old, one who has no understanding of what has taken place, and one who has all the responsibility from then onwards. As a parent of two young children, my heart was in my mouth when I started reading this book. Is a five year old narrator plausible and reliable? Probably not, but as the pages turn, you sort of forget that she is only five and are rooting for her and her brother to make it off of the island to safety. I won't say anymore about the book because I think it deserves to be read without any more preamble.
Books very rarely make me cry, but this one almost did. It's a cracking read, and maybe not for the faint-hearted but I'll certainly be recommending it.