Book Review: The Bear

Synopsis from Goodreads: In an Eden-like future, a girl and her father live close to the land in the shadow of a lone mountain. They own a few remnants of civilization: some books, a pane of glass, a set of flint and steel, a comb. The father teaches his daughter how to fish and hunt and the secrets of the seasons and the stars. He is preparing her for an adulthood in harmony with nature, for they are the last of humankind. But when the girl finds herself alone in an unknown landscape, it is a bear that will lead her back home through a vast wilderness that offers the greatest lessons of all, if she can learn to listen. A cautionary tale of human fragility, of love and loss, The Bear is a stunning tribute to the beauty of nature’s dominion.

I picked this book up from the library because it fulfilled two challenge prompts in one, not knowing much about it. The Goodreads synopsis mentioned that the author was a National Book Award finalist, so I figured the writing would be good. I will freely admit that sci fi is not normally one of the genres I like. Most of them are too dystopian for me, or wind up being all about the machinery and vaguely Alien(s) in feel. This book isn’t really either of those (although interestingly several reviews I read said the book was extremely sad and/or depressing, although I didn’t feel that way about it.)

The book is told mostly over the span of one year, from one summer solstice (which happens to be The Girl’s birthday) to the next. The Girl and The Man (they aren’t given other names) live a solitary but not necessarily lonely existence. Something has happened to the majority of the world’s human population, although the specifics aren’t ever given. It hasn’t affected anything else on the planet as we know it. Plants, animals, weather, and the stars are all fixed in their places, and animals in particular play a large part in this story. The Girl and The Man leave their home to travel to the sea to collect salt. Along the way, The Man falls ill and dies, and The Girl (who is 12ish? 13ish?) is left alone to try to make it home before the winter snows begin. She is befriended by a bear who begins the walk back to her home with her, but the winter comes early and they make it only as far as a cave in the mountains before he succumbs to hibernation and sleep. The girl must figure out how to survive through the winter months on her own.

Let’s start with what I liked about this book: The author is a wonderful writer. His word choice and phrasing, and the quiet, contemplative pacing are all beautiful. He devotes quite a bit of space within this fairly short book to creating nature scenes that are evocative and paint a detailed picture of this post-apocalypse world. I also enjoyed the marriage of Russian folk tales (The Man and the bear both tell the girl tales of things that came before) and Native American tales and symbolism. The author also has put a LOT of research into the day-to-day life of people living in a time where there aren’t conveniences of modern life. Need a crash course in how to feed yourself post-apocalypse? He’s got you covered. I appreciated that attention to detail.

What I didn’t like: This book is slow. Despite being just under 250 pages, I felt like it was a lot of philosophic navel gazing. What is the meaining of life? Are we truly alone in this world? What can the animals teach us? I get that The Girl needed to hunt and find food, but there were a lot of repetitive (and probably for a lot of readers overly descriptive) scenes about her doing that. I didn’t need several chapters about her breaking trail in the snow and sitting outside in the cold all day and then repeating that several times over. I wanted there to be more interaction with the bear, and the scenes in which he and the girl are travelling together were engaging. The time he spends hibernating in the cave with his back to her while she boils water? Not so much.

Giving this one 3.5 stars, mostly weighted towards the word crafting. This is book 17/24 in the Fall into Reading Challenge for the Sci Fi prompt, and book 2/2 for October’s Completely Melanie challenge prompt for a book cover with the night sky on the cover.

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