Bear, which won Marian Engel the Governor General's Award for fiction and remains her best-known novel, is a short, lyrical book with a simple, notorious plot. A solitary, reclusive woman works as an archivist for a Toronto-based Canadian history institute that receives a large and unusual bequest by a descendent of a notable military family: a remote house in northern Ontario, filled with an unknown quantity of books and manuscripts. Engel's heroine travels to the house, which is accessible only by water, and begins to catalogue the deceased colonel's collection. Along with the house, the protagonist encounters Homer Campbell, the capable, friendly manager of the local general store and gas station, and an aging black bear that was once a pet of the Institute's benefactor.
As Bear continues, its heroine's research among the house's antiquated library draws her into serious reflection on romantic literature, but most readers won't bother with this--it is the protagonist's sexual relations with her pet bear that are the most famous element of the novel. Engel is, happily, not particularly graphic in her treatment of this subject, but she does load it with a great deal of symbolism. Many readers will find that her novel tries too hard to be a parable of animalism, while others will simply dismiss this solipsistic love story (for that is what it is, after a fashion) as unbelievable. Nevertheless, anyone who is not adverse to this mode of didactic storytelling will find Bear to be an enjoyable--and unusual--read. --Jack Illingworth