Review catch-up – novels by Marian Engel & Alicia Drake

I managed to sign up for rather a lot of blog tours – but for some fab books – in May, which has meant the other books I’ve read have rather had to take second fiddle. Time to catch up with a couple.

Bear by Marian Engel

First published in 1976, reprinted by Daunt Books last year, Bear by Canadian author Marian Engel is a novella with a reputation. At its centre is an ultimately abusive relationship between a woman and a bear – yes, that kind of relationship! However it is much more than that. It is about enjoying solitude, liberation from the normal life, living off-grid in nature.

Lou is a librarian working at a Toronto institute and is asked by its Director to travel to an island in the north to catalogue the library of Colonel Cary, who had made his home up there and left his estate to the institute. She is excited by the prospect of spending a summer on a remote island, alone with books and nature and travels up country to meet Homer, who will ferry her over to her home for the season. As they round the point in his boat, she spies the house – unexpectedly, it’s a perfect Fowler Octogon House. It has no power though, she’ll have to chop wood for the stove too. And then Homer says, “Did anyone tell you, about the bear?”

The house has long had a captive bear, housed in a byre and compound. She’ll be expected to feed and look after it while she is there. Little did she suspect that she’d grow to have feelings for the creature!

There are some great descriptions of nature and the changes in the weather as the season goes on. Homer comes by with supplies, so she’s not entirely without human contact, but she is enjoying her time alone for the most part. This was our book group read for last month, but I wasn’t able to go due to a pulled muscle in my back, so I don’t know what the others made of it. I felt sorry for the bear, but liked the writing for the most part.

However around the blogosphere, Ali enjoyed the novel’s other themes a lot, and Dorian wrote this empassioned piece about it.

Source: Own copy. Daunt, flapped paperback, 168 pages.

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I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake

When this debut novel, a coming of age story set in Paris was published in 2018, I just had to have it in hardback, for Picador made it clothbound in a bright chrome yellow with gorgeous endpapers featuring a traditional French apartment block and the Luxembourg gardens, together with that evocative photo on the front. That it should have spent six years waiting in my bedside bookcase waiting to be read is absurd, for I enjoyed this novel a lot.

Thirteen-year-old Paul lives in 6ème, the desirable arrondissement on the Rive Gauche encompassing Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Jardin du Luxembourg. A shy and lonely boy, as the novel opens, he’s on his way home from school and is picked up by Gabriel, his mother Severine’s younger lover to go to the hospital where his mother has just given birth to his half-sister, Lou. He sees more of their Fillipino housekeeper Cindy that his mother, and now she has the baby… plus Gabriel, a musician in a band will be about so much more. Baby seen, Paul goes off to his father Philippe’s apartment, but he’s not back from work yet. His father is a fitness fanatic; he has all the gear and gadgets and a €7000 bike, and an English trainer Todd. It seems that except for Cindy, both his parents are always surprised to see him.

It’s no wonder that he strikes up a friendship with Scarlett, who is a couple of grades up from him. Scarlett is nominally going out with Stéphane, but will meet Paul to walk and go on the swings. His classmates think she is a slut, but Paul has a massive crush on her, and of course, she never sees him as anything other than a friend where she doesn’t have to act a part, where she can leave her troubles behind.

Then a series of things happen to really rock young Paul to his core, he struggles to understand them and I won’t say more. Needless to say coming to terms with them forces him to grow up fast, but also value his family again.

I found Paul to be an interesting narrator with a good mix of humour, some sarcasm and plenty of pathos in his narration. I felt the author caught the character of the young teen very well; the shuttling between homes with no set routine and not having anyone to talk to, and the banter of his school mates. Of course he’d fall for Scarlett! He felt very real, of his age, unlike Muriel Barbery’s rather precocious 12-year-old, Paloma in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. With his parents, it wasn’t a case of not being loved, but just being forgotten about when their minds were having to focus elsewhere.

I very much enjoyed this novel. It appears that Drake hasn’t written another – yet. She’s best known for her writing on French fashion houses. If she does though, I’d definitely like to read it.

Source: Own copy. Picador, now in paperback, 247 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

8 thoughts on “Review catch-up – novels by Marian Engel & Alicia Drake

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ll find out next week at our next meeting! It probably was a good book group choice, but does require a trigger warning I think.

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    Well, that was quite a restrained review of The Bear! Shame you couldn’t go to the Book Club, as I can imagine it must have led to quite a discussion!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was restrained wasn’t it. I just didn’t want to go down that route. I’ll be interested to rekindle the discussion a ilttle at our next meeting.

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