Bear: A Novel

Image of Bear: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
Reviewed by: 

Bear is a dark tale, redeemed by good writing.”

Sisters Elena and Sam Arthur live with and care for their ailing mother in a small, worn house on San Juan Island. Both young women scrape out a living at jobs of necessity. This depressing narrative is saved by the island setting beautifully described by Julia Phillips in her new novel Bear.

“Friday Harbor was behind Sam now. Ahead of her. Behind. Across the waves, along the channel, as the ferry orbited the center of Sam’s tiny universe. Black seabirds swooped along the water. The islands of the archipelago made an unending series of green velvet mounds. Over their shorelines, shining white buildings sat on stacked hills.”

Sam, at 28, is a few years younger than her sister. She works the snack counter on a Washington State ferry and her discontent with the job and resentment toward customers is apparent. For solace she and one of the deckhands, Ben, have sex on the boat wherever they can—supply rooms, bathrooms, in the galley. There is no tenderness in these encounters, rather, Sam seems disdainful of Ben and turns down his invitations to spend time together outside of work.

One evening on the ferry’s return trip to Friday Harbor Sam sees a bear swimming alongside the boat. Afterward, telling her sister what she saw, Sam is elated. But when the bear shows up at their house and her sister begins to feed and interact with it, Sam’s feelings change, and tensions build between her and Elena.

After their mother dies, and when Sam finds out Elena is having a relationship with their neighbor Danny, things get worse. Sam always thought she and her sister would leave the island together one day to start a new life elsewhere, but now she knows Elena has no intention to leave.

Even as we learn more about the sisters’ fatherless background and other struggles it’s difficult to excuse Sam’s rude, selfish, and sometimes unkind behavior. She has harsh thoughts about nearly everyone. Sam is an unlikeable character, which is unfortunate for anyone wanting a protagonist to cheer for.

The bear represents fear for Sam and a near-mystical respite for Elena. Unfortunately there isn’t enough time spent on the relationship between Elena and the bear. What we get instead is Sam and her fixations. This becomes repetitive. It may be true that fear causes people to do things they normally wouldn’t, but what Sam does, and the ending of this book, is disappointing.

Bear is a dark tale, redeemed by good writing. Evocative descriptions of Sam’s shifts on the ferryboat are wonderful:

“The afternoon was breezy. The channel that morning had been thick white with fog; the railings on the deck had hardly been visible from the cabin, and when Sam went out to take her breaks, the air sat wet on her skin. Seagulls called nearby but she couldn’t see them. The ferry blew its horn. When they approached a harbor there came the sound of chains moving, the announcements to prepare to disembark, but no sign of land. Then the thump, thump of docking. The boat rocked underfoot.”

Flashbacks to Sam’s and Elena’s childhood are heartfelt. These scenes, unlike the ones in present day, offer a sense of shared love and wonder, along with a well-rendered sense of place:

“Blackberries and salmonberries grew wild in the bushes. Stained the girls’ fingers, their mouths . . . they walked through grasses as tall as they were, where soft white flowers brushed their cheeks and ears. Tiny, rare marbled butterflies floated by. Foxes emerged on the paths ahead and stared, bold as could be, before vanishing into the undergrowth.”

Reminiscent of another novel of the same name, (Bear by Marian Engel, Atheneum, 1976) the passages about the bear are most visceral. Here we can really see, smell, hear, and even taste the presence of this animal:

“Sam could smell the earth, the sap, the sharp crushed flakes of bark underfoot. The saliva-thickening weight of mud, the floury dust of pollen. Birds chirped. The breeze blew. She could smell something rotten. The bear had arrived.

“There. Moving, an enormous animal, coming toward them. Its head was huge. Its arms were broad, and its shoulders were high, an alternating rise with every step, one blade lifted then the other. Its back dipped then rose again into a wide rump. The bear moved in a slow arc around them. It watched.

“Sam couldn’t smell the bear’s stink. Only the clean summery scent of heated pine, the inland island smell, underlaid with dirt, moss, and salt from the distant shifting tides.”

Beautiful description here, though some readers may wish this magnificent animal had been portrayed more broadly, with respect and compassion.