Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Last Bear by Mandy Haggith

Part of Scottish Literature Week

The Last Bear, Mandy Haggith’s debut novel, is set 1000 years ago in the remote northwest Highlands of Scotland and tells the story of the death of the last remaining bear to live in the wild in Scotland.

The bear in question is female and wanders through the forest in vain search of a mate. Brigid is the last shaman of a pagan tribe who has been banished from her village under pressure from the new priest who defends the expansion of Christianity. However, the old pagan beliefs and rituals have not been eliminated completely and many still cling to them especially in times of difficulty. Despite her exclusion, Brigid, with her knowledge of the forest and healing plants, is often called upon to cure and care for the sick and suffering on occasions when the medicine of the new religion fails. Bjorn, the headman of the tribe, has converted to Christianity but, in his heart, remains a believer in the old ways. Margaret is his young wife, a devout Christian, the sister of James, the priest.

With subtlety, Mandy Haggith has captured a society in the midst of turbulent change. Between the old pagan ways which meant living in harmony with nature, submitting to its moods and vagaries using sacrifices, belief in magic and an acceptance of what cannot be changed; and the new religion which teaches man to dominate nature and control it, to consider himself superior to it; a community is divided.

Among the well-drawn cast of characters there is some interesting shading of right and wrong on both sides even though it is very clear which side the author is on. Bjorn, respected and esteemed leader of his people, torn between his deep-rooted belief in paganism and his inability to resist the inexorable rise of Christianity makes an error of judgement which leads to disastrous and fatal consequences for his village.

Just as the bear is doomed in any case because it can’t reproduce so too are the pagan ways as man’s nature urges him to exert his power over his surroundings. But the bear does not die a natural death and its killing is part of a chain of events whose origins lie in the inability of the two cultures to co-inhabit.

If I have any criticisms, and they are minor ones, it is that the ‘political’ message clouded slightly my affinity with some characters. Brigid bears the brunt of this. The weight of her symbolism of the passing of an age made it more difficult for her to be as rounded a character as Bjorn, for example. Also I imagined life at this time in the austere Northern Scottish winter to be harsh and onerous but a picture of hardship and deprivation is not painted. But these are not serious flaws for me and didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this novel.

The prose is elegant and evocative with strong descriptive passages of the Scottish landscape, especially of the forests. I was not surprised to learn that the writer is also a poet.

‘Time clotted. One long moment straggled across the glen, and in that moment the sleet began to soak into wool, a chill rose up out of the wet ground and dusk seeped into the minds of the gathered men. A horse stamped and clammy clouds of breath hung in the air, sleet grizzling through them.’

Two Ravens Press (29 Feb 2008), 256 pages, ISBN-10: 1906120161

For our interview with Two Ravens Press, click here.

The Rest of Scottish Literature Week:

Reviews
Ron Butlin’s “Belonging”
J. A. Henderson’s “Crash”
Alan Warner’s “Morvern Callar”
Interview: Doug Johnstone, author of “Tombstoning” and “The Ossians”

9 comments on “The Last Bear by Mandy Haggith

  1. Nik
    April 18, 2008

    It sounds wonderful. Think I’ll be getting me a copy after that review!

    Nik

  2. Lisa
    April 18, 2008

    Fascinating story. Sounds sad, mind you.

    Another one for the Amazon basket. Plus, I feel I must support my Two Ravens sister author. I wonder if Dove Grey Reader would like this one? Hmm.

    P.S I have just alerted the author to this review 🙂

  3. Jackie
    April 18, 2008

    Ohhh, I’ve really been looking forward to this review and it did not disappoint. It sounds like something I’d get into, though, as Lisa said, sad. It’s not a time period often found in fiction, so that would be a draw.
    The passage you quoted is quite poetic, not to mention very vivid. This sounds like a good one.

  4. Nik
    April 18, 2008

    Ordered!

  5. rosyb
    April 18, 2008

    Hey, really nice to see VL having an effect. Let us know what you think of it, Nik. Feel free to post back here.

    Sounds a very unusual book and I liked the idea of the themes it is exploring. I know what you mean, Mary, that symbolism of a character can restrict them. I’m a bit of a sucker for characters symbolising things (unless it’s Jude the Obscure, of course). I think it’s because my background is in theatre.

    Very intriguing-sounding.

  6. Nik
    April 18, 2008

    Wil do! But don’t hold your breath, there are roughly a hundred gazollian books on my to-read pile! This one might sneak in under the radar though, it does sound really great…

    Nik

  7. kirstyjane
    April 20, 2008

    This sounds really intriguing, and I think at the next opportunity I’ll order it for my mum – sounds like it’s right up her street!

  8. Pingback: Movern Callar by Alan Warner « Vulpes Libris

  9. Pingback: Interview with Doug Johnstone | Vulpes Libris

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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