Bear Witness by Mandy Haggith
One of the central themes of this novel – Mandy Haggith’s second with a bear in the title – is independence. It’s dealt with on a sliding scale, rather than in absolutes, and it takes on different qualities when seen through ecological, national, and personal viewpoints. The central character, Callis, is a Scottish ecologist and feminist with a fascination for bears, and we follow her as she slips from a stable job in Norwegian academia into a more hectic life as a policy advisor. She is desperate to reintroduce bears to Norwegian forests, and then, she hopes, to those in Scotland too. There are obstacles on all sides: while the political machine threatens to thwart her efforts, she must also negotiate a difficult and confusing personal life. Not only does her mother die on page two, but she’s also tied to a feminist pact with her friend Diana, a declaration of independence that restricts sexual relations with men to one night stands. Easy to maintain when it’s the lecherous boss, less so when there’s an attractive park ranger, skinny dipping in a pool beneath a waterfall deep in the Romanian forest.
The prose is lyrical and poetic when let loose in the wild, where we see a bear’s ‘fluid shamble’ as it runs up a leafy bank; another has a ‘shaggy coat, greying and baggy as a borrowed suit.’ Haggith is skilful and precise when writing on nature. She balances these moments of quiet with a plot that races with the pace of a romantic thriller. There are moments when the romance threatens to languish in the clichés of longing looks and deep sighs. These are easily redeemed, though, by her ability to weave in animalistic sexuality, as when Callis is invited by her Romanian boy to respond with the lustiness of a bear in season.