‘What happened to Jade Hunter?’, asks the cover of Bear Season. It is perhaps bold to ask a question on the cover that the book does not intend to answer, but that boldness suits a story that has little interest in giving the reader what they expect or want.

I’m a big fan of ambiguity. Sometimes when a film ends with uncertainty, my wife will say to me, ‘What do you think really happened?’, and I will always say ‘None of it really happened, it’s fiction’, and because she has a very generous spirit she has stopped threatening to divorce me for this. I disliked the end of Atonement, which can’t escape being just as invented as the rest of the novel but seems to wish it could, and preferred the end of Life of Pi, which inhabits its unreality with a sense of steadiness. Give me ‘the darkness within; or else the light’ and I am enthralled; give me four seasons of television to follow it up and I have little appetite.

So Bear Season, which revels in uncertainty and unreality, and foregoes some of the most essential details of its story, was very much up my street. There is little resolution here, and the novel is the stronger for it.

But this is just one part of how it works. That question on the cover doesn’t just hint at an answer we won’t get. It hints at a mystery structure and true-crime tone (itself contradictory, of course) that never quite arrive. The story is framed as a journalist’s investigation into a cold case, but resists using this frame to make the story seem more real or more objectively told: instead it makes the telling altogether more personal. Little misdirections abound: you see that a central character is named Ursula and think ‘that’s a little on the nose’, but Ursula, a seasoned hunter, is not bear-fixated; the bear-fixated character is named Hunter. What threatened to be neat and pat becomes ungraspable, and perhaps the message is: don’t try to grasp this.

The foundation of all this uncertainty lies, for me, in the questions of what Jade wants and what we should make of it. We never quite know if she wants to become the bear or be devoured by it or both. Whatever her plan, it is plainly not one we should want her to act on: we know that will mean dying alone in the Alaskan wilderness. And yet we cannot hope that Jade will remain suffocated by her dickhead boyfriend, her distant father, her self-important PhD supervisor. To Jade, transformation seems the only escape—seems inevitable—and the case she makes is dangerously compelling. It is impossible not to hope that she succeeds, even knowing that she cannot.

This novel is full of false dichotomies. There is wildness or there is civilisation. There is human or there is animal. Women are fragile or they are hysterical. You are either with Otto or you are against him. Jade can choose either stasis or a metamorphosis that will leave her behind entirely. Ultimately, what we may want for Jade is a gentler transformation into Ursula, the bear-woman, who collapses these dichotomies, however imperfectly. Or perhaps not transformation, but adoption: there is a sense that these two could have healed each other, if only the world hadn’t worn down their trust and their hopefulness. Carla, the journalist, reveals what is missing through her friendship with Ursula’s son, which begins from a place of instinctive trust and Carla asking, ‘Can you help me?’. Amid all the unanswered questions, it is perhaps this unasked question that lies at the heart of Jade and Ursula’s tragedies.

Or perhaps I think something completely different. Tomorrow I probably will. It’s that kind of book.

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