With the publication of such Modernist works as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner honed a stream-of-consciousness technique that immersed readers in the thoughts and experiences of characters too verbally limited, disturbed, immature, or cognitively impaired to articulate their own stories in a traditional literary manner. Faulkner’s genius brought to life the inner lives of children, farm hands, former slaves, criminals, and the mentally ill.
This technique has been much imitated, most recently in such novels as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is narrated by a 15-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome; Room, told from the perspective of a kidnapped child; and A Beautiful Truth, sections of which are related directly from the perspective of a chimpanzee.
Claire Cameron mines this narrative tradition in her second novel, which is told in the first-person present from the viewpoint of Anna, a five-year-old girl whose parents have been killed by a rogue black bear on a family camping trip. Left in Anna’s charge is her two-year-old brother Alex, whom she’s nicknamed “Stick.”
The novel begins with Anna awakening in her sleeping bag in the middle of the attack. Disoriented, frightened, and with only a young child’s grasp of reality, Anna tries to interpret the chaotic events occurring outside – and then inside – the tent. The reader quickly realizes that the camp has been attacked by a bear and that the father is trying to save his children’s lives before the bear kills him.
Anna tries to understand what is happening; she knows something has gone terribly wrong, but can’t articulate or properly comprehend it: “Daddy is hugging me but it’s not a snuggle. It is hard and squeezy and my breath shoots out of my body. The sky shakes. I see a long arm that is like a claw but big and it is a tree branch with needles.” Her father manages to squeeze the children into a Coleman storage bin outside the tent, and as Anna hears the animal’s teeth “go scrape on the bone and I hear it pop,” it becomes clear that her father has been killed and partially eaten.
The children escape, but still cannot understand what has transpired, even when Anna finds part of her father’s leg and discovers her mother lying mortally wounded in the nearby bushes. The mother implores Anna to put Alex in the canoe and push off from the island campsite.
Plunging the reader into the middle of the bear attack does make for a dramatic opening, but after the short, moving scene with the children’s wounded mother, there is no dialogue for 200 pages. Alex is too young to speak or react in any coherent way, leaving a barely articulate five-year-old to carry the narrative load. This is problematic, especially since nothing much happens before the children are rescued much later in the book. Anna tries to look after her brother and find food, water, and shelter, but being five years old, there’s not much she is capable of doing.
Cameron’s solution to this narrative challenge is to load the story with detailed flashbacks and long passages of internal monologue that deflate the tension of the lost-in-the-wild narrative at the novel’s core. Almost everything Anna sees and experiences sends her into a chain of free association and memories of her life back in Toronto, digressions that often go on for pages.
More problematic is the amount of detail and awareness of chronology that Anna provides in these flashbacks, which is simply not believable for a child of five. In one extended sequence, during which Anna remembers a day when her brother went missing at a cottage earlier in the summer, she recalls verbatim snippets of dialogue, the food she was eating, and the proper sequencing of events.
These flashbacks feel less like a child escaping into the past than the author’s attempt to fill in the backstory (the camping trip comes after the parents’ reconciliation following an extended separation). Also, by killing off the parents in the opening scene, the author prevents the reader from developing much attachment to them, lessening the pathos of the situation.
The short sections after the children’s rescue, featuring a variety of adult characters, come as a relief after being isolated with a five-year-old for 250 pages. Anna’s interactions with a well-intentioned but ineffective therapist reveal far more about childhood trauma then her repetitive inner monologues, and the scenes with the children’s grandfather are genuinely moving.
In the end, Anna proves a resourceful, imaginative narrator, but The Bear delivers too much of a good thing.