Do Not Feed the Bear is a particularly difficult book to review, for me at least. Not because it’s bad (it’s not – it’s very good, in fact) but because I have absolutely no idea where to start or what to say. Let’s hope I can do it justice.
On her forty-seventh birthday, Sydney Smith stands on a rooftop and prepares to jump…
Sydney is a cartoonist and freerunner. Feet constantly twitching, always teetering on the edge of life, she’s never come to terms with the event that ripped her family apart when she was ten years old. And so, on a birthday that she doesn’t want to celebrate, she returns alone to St Ives to face up to her guilt and grief. It’s a trip that turns out to be life-changing – and not only for herself.
Do Not Feed the Bear is a book about lives not yet lived, about the kindness of others and about how, when our worlds stop, we find a way to keep on moving.
Ostensibly, Do Not Feed the Bear is about Sydney Smith. A cartoonist who enjoys freerunning in her spare time, she is trying to put together a graphical autobiography, but is struggling to finish it. With her birthday looming, she decides to visit St Ives – alone, much to her partner’s chagrin – to revisit the site of the family holidays from her childhood, and the scene of a great tragedy in her life – one that has affected her, and her family, deeply. I say ostensibly, because this novel is really about so much more than this. It’s a novel about grief and coming to terms with it, as well as being about second, or maybe even third, chances.
The novel is told from many perspectives, and it jumps around in time a great deal, but at no point does it become confusing, even when looking at events from the perspective of Stuart, a much-loved dog. I thought that the way in which this story is told is brilliant – multiple perspectives and moving back and forth in time isn’t uncommon, and yet the way it’s done here, moving randomly from person to person, between past and present to me became something of a written equivalent of freerunning. There are unexpected leaps and twists, and the story moves in unexpected ways that only Elliott – the freerunner in this analogy – can anticipate.
Do Not Feed the Bear is packed full of memorable characters. There’s Sydney, her partner Ruth, and father, Howard. In St Ives, there’s Maria, a dental hygienist who is trapped in a particularly sour marriage. Maria’s daughter Belle, who still lives at home at 29 years old, works as a bookseller, a role she shares with Dexter, who she absolutely does not get on with, ranting about him constantly to anyone who will listen. Sydney unintentionally brings these characters together, and they start to see that there may be other options to the lives they’re living. Nothing is set, and they are in control, however unlikely that may seem at times. Elliott really makes you care about her characters, and shows that there is always hope, no matter what.
Do Not Feed the Bear is a wonderful novel. I did struggle to get into it initially, but I soon relaxed into the narrative, and let it take me where it wanted. It may not suit everyone’s tastes, but I’d encourage you to give this a try. While sad in places, there are also some wonderfully touching and heart-warming moments.
Do Not Feed the Bear was published by Tinder Press on 8th August. Many thanks to Jenni Leech and the publisher for the review copy.