Author: Marian Engel.
Genre: Literature, fiction, animals, romance.
Publication Date: 1976.
Summary: After five years buried like a mole amid the decaying maps and manuscripts of an historical institute, Lou is given a welcome field assignment: to catalogue a 19th-century library, improbably located in an octagonal house on a remote island in northern Ontario. Eager to reconstruct the estate's curious history, she is unprepared for her discovery that the island has one other inhabitant: a bear. Lou's imagination is soon overtaken by the estate's historical occupants, whose fascination with bear lore becomes her own. Irresistibly, Lou is led along a path of emotional and sexual self-discovery as she explores the limits of her own animal nature through her bizarre and healing relationship with the bear.
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ The tradition that everything for outdoors must be soiled and pilled and forty years old seemed to have died except in her. She thought of a man she knew who said it was now impossible to find a woman who smelled of her own self.
♥ Driving off the island the next morning, she felt her heart lurch at the sight of the bald stone mountains of Algoma. Where have I been? she wondered. Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?
♥ By what crazy luck she had come to this place she would never know. "I will be happy," she whispered to herself.
...Half stretched out, she realized she was exhausted: joy was tiring.
♥ Morning in the city is to be endured only. There is no dawn any more than there is real darkness. There is only, after rainfall or street-sweeping, the sound of tires squealing on wet asphalt.
♥ It was the soft, thick stuff that excites you unless you are driving or half dead, packing snow already falling in caterpillars off the greening branches. She sniffed again. Snow has its own cold smell.
♥ Lucy's face crinkled with some inconceivable merriment. She did not look one hundred years old, only eternal.
♥ She looked up at Cary and down at the bear and was suddenly exquisitely happy. Worlds changed. Two men in scarlet uniforms, two men who had lived well; neither rich or highly well born, both she was sure, in the end, ruined. She felt victorious over them; she felt she was their inheritor: a woman rubbing her foot in the thick black pelt of a bear was more than they could have imagined. More, too, than a military victory: splendour.
♥ Yet she had no feeling at all that either the writers or the purchasers of these books knew what animals were about. She had no idea what animals were about. They were creatures. They were not human. She supposed that their functions were defined by the size, shape and complications of their brains. She supposed that they led dim, flickering, inarticulate psychic lives as well.
He, she saw, lay in the weak sun with his head on his paws. This did not lead her to presume that he suffered or did not suffer. That he would like striped or spotted pyjamas. Or that he would ever write a book about humans clothed in ursomorphic thoughts. A bear is more an island than a man, she thought. To a human.
♥ It gave her a strange peace to sit beside him. It was as if the bear, like the books, knew generations of secrets; but he had no need to reveal them.
♥ As she was finishing her supper, she heard him scratching to be let in and thought, why not? It struck her when she opened the door to him that she always expected it to be someone else. She wondered if he, like herself, visualized transformations, waking every morning expecting to be a prince, disappointed still to be a bear. She doubted that.
♥ She began to read, enthralled. She had never read this book before, though the subject interested her. Why? Someone, some scholar, had told her it was a pile of rubbish. Most autobiography is rubbish, she thought. People remember things all wrong. But what amusing rubbish this is! What a man! Big. Abusive. A giant. A real descendant of the real Trelawny, the one about the twenty thousand Cornishmen. Ok, I'll believe he's a liar.
Look at the bear, dozing and drowsing there, thinking his own thoughts. Like a dog, like a groundhog, like a man: big.
Trelawny's good. He speaks in his own voice. He is unfair, but HE SPEAKS IN HIS OWN VOICE.
She sat up and said that out loud. The bear grunted. She got down on her knees beside him. Colonel Cary had left her tiny, painful, creepily paper-saving notes. She was still searching the house to find his voice. She had an awed feeling that Trelawny and the bear were speaking in Cary's voice. Trelawny wanted to find a poet, to know a poet, because he couldn't be one, and he was romantic bout poets. He lived to be old, he knew Swinburne and the pre-Raphaelites. There's some connection there.
Cary wanted an island.
She was excited. She wanted to know how and who this Cary was. Trelawny. Colonel Cary. The bear. There was some connection, some unfingerable intimacy among them, some tie between longing and desire and the achievable.
♥ All the Victorians, early or late, she thought, were morbid geniuses. Cary was one of them and bought himself an island here. He didn't have Ackerman's Views or Bartlett's prints to go by. He sensed what he wanted and came and found it
How did he start wanting it? Did he come entranced by the novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn, then move on to Atala and the idea of the noble savage, then James Fenimore Cooper?
He came for some big dream. He knew it was going to be hard. There were no servants who would come to the remoter islands. Books were procured with the utmost difficulty, and the tale of their difficult acquisition had probably caused this library to be left to the Institute. But in return for the sacrifice of civilization as he knew it, what did Cary obtain? An island kingdom, safely hedged by books? The dissipation of the sound of revelry forever? Relief from white neckcloths? Or was it simply hope and change?
He came, she thought, to find his dream, leaving his practical wife behind him in York. He was adventurous, big-spirited, romantic. There was room for him in the woods.
"Bear," she said, rubbing her foot in his fur, suddenly lonely.
♥ The world was enveloped in a kind of early summer bliss. Kingfishers splashed, fish leapt, lily pads spread out from the sides of the channel. Keats, she thought. Then, were the romantic poets the only people who saw?
♥ She thought of the women the officers brought to Canada with them: beached, bent, practical, enduring, exiled. Still, as many there must have been who enjoyed tugging a new world out of the universe as cried and died.
♥ She drove back, her thoughts divided. She felt she was taking a man away from his wife. She felt she was offering him something of a holiday. She was glad his wife adopted children and refused to man gas pumps, but she was angry with her raised and querulous voice. Fish wives give us all a bad name, she thought.
Fishwives. Fishwidows. And we all set out to be mermaids.
♥ Because what she disliked in men was not their eroticism, but their assumption that women had none. Which left women with nothing to be but housemaids.
She unfolded and copied his precious papers. She cleaned the house and made it shine. Not for the Director, but because she and her lover needed peace and decency.
♥ Bear, take me to the bottom of the ocean with you, bear, swim with me, bear, put your arms around me, enclose me, swim, down, down, down with me.
Bear, make me comfortable in the world at last. Give me your skin.
Bear, I want nothing but this from you. Oh, thank you, bear. I will keep you safe from strangers and peering eyes forever.
Bear, give up your humility. You are not a humble beast. You think your own thoughts. Tell them to me.
Bear, I cannot command you to love me, but I think you love me. What I want is for you to continue to be, and to be something to me. No more. Bear.
♥ It was the night of the falling stars. She took him to the riverbank. They swam in the still, black water. They did not play. They were serious that night. They swam in circles around each other, very solemnly. Then they went to the shore, and instead of shaking himself on her, he lay beside her and licked the water from her body while she, on her back, let the stars fall, one, two, fourteen, a million, it seemed, falling on her, ready to burn her. Once she reached up to one, it seemed so close, but its brightness faded from her grasp, faded into the milky way.
♥ She knew she had to hide, but there was no cavity, no bear. She cooled herself in the water, curling and uncurling, flexing and unflexing, for she knew she had come from water.
♥ "It wasn't very witty," the Devil said in the night, "to commit an act of bestiality with a tatty old pet. An armadillo, now, might at least have been original; more of a challenge. Bestiality's all right in itself, but you have to do it with style. You've never done anything with style, have you? You're only an old kind of tarpaulin woman, you have no originality, no grace. When your lover went off with that green little girl you said the commonest sort of things, you wrote on pavements with chalk like a child, when instead you could have said he wasn't much of a catch. Then you went after the boss - fancy that, being as unimaginative as that - and when he screwed you, you made sure it wasn't on the most valuable maps. You have no pride, no sense of yourself. An abominable snowman might have been recherché, or you might had tried something more refined like an interesting kind of water-vole. The lemming's prick-bone you know, can only be seen under a magnifying glass. There's a priest in the Arctic with a collection of them; I could have told you about that, if you'd only listened. The trouble with you Ontario girls is you never acquire any kind of sophistication. You're deceiving yourself about that bear: he's about as interesting as an ottoman: as you, in fact. Be a good girl, now, and go away. No stars will fall in your grasp."
♥ That night, lying clothed and tenderly beside him by the fire, she was a babe, a child, an innocent. The loons' cries outside were sharp, and for her. The reed rubbed against each other and sang her a song. Lapped in his fur, she was wrapped in a basket and caressed by little waves. The breath of kind beasts was upon her. She felt pain, but it was a dear, sweet pain that belonged not to mental suffering, but to the earth. She smelled moss and clean northern flowers. Her skin was silk and the air around her was velvet. The pebbles in the night water gleamed with a beauty that was their own value, not a jeweller's. She lay with him until the morning birds began to sing.
What had passed to her from him she did not know. Certainly it was not the seed of heroes, or magic, or any astounding virtue, for she continued to be herself. But for one strange, sharp moment she could feel in her pores and the taste of her own mouth that she knew what the world was for. She felt not that she was at last human, but that she was at last clean. Clean and simple and proud.
♥ She drove South all night, taking the long, overland route. She wore a thick pullover and drove with the windows open until the snell of the land stopped being the snell of water and trees and became cities and gas fumes. It was a brilliant night, all star-shine, and overhead the Great Bear and his thirty-seven thousand virgins kept her company.