In 1541, a young woman named Marguerite de La Rocque accompanies her male guardian on one of the first French colonial expeditions to the New World. After a sexual scandal aboard the ship, she is punished and abandoned on an uninhabited island in the North Atlantic, where she faces off against wild animals and the elements, incredibly surviving against all odds. Centuries later, a contemporary author comes across the legend of the Bear Woman and becomes obsessed.
Approaching Marguerite the only way she knows how – by writing – the author is made acutely aware of her own writing process: both as a shield against and as a way of understanding the world she lives in. She finds herself the mother of three young children, enduring a harsh winter and an even colder cultural climate. Gradually, the author’s life becomes intertwined with Marguerite’s, a literary figure as much as a figment of her own imagination. The more the author digs through historical archives, the more uncertain she becomes of who Marguerite really was, and of her own motivations for writing about her.
Penned in an essayistic style in the vein of Marguerite Duras, The Bear Woman is a meditation on womanhood and on the act of writing as much as it is a story of survival – Marguerite’s and the author’s. In her characteristic sparsely elegant prose, leading Scandinavian writer and feminist Karolina Ramqvist tackles questions of what it is to be a woman who writes, as well as what a story is and who has the right to tell it.
With shared themes that transcend the centuries that divide two seemingly very different lives, The Bear Woman offers insight into the solitary nature of the writing life, and the currency of being a woman then and now.
“The obvious satisfaction of the writer or the poet who plays with the constraints of a form. This is the feeling first conveyed when reading Karolina Ramqvist. Her Bear Woman appears to be the perfect example of the contemporary genre in English referred to as narrative non-fiction, but, as it happens, isn’t exactly what we see a little too much of in France at the moment: literary journalism. Because The Bear Woman is everything at the same time: an essay, a story, written in an autobiographical style but at the same time novel-like, in essence, a text where all the tools of the author are summoned together, and intertwine to bring out both the extraordinary and the banal, the facts and their literary representation. /…/ The book convinces with its freedom of tone – this so natural way of going from one era to another – from one reference to another. (The story) transports the reader at its own pace, in an almost friendly gesture, through the extreme fates of men and women – and this tactfulness is infinitely precious.”
Le Monde (FR)
“But when she discovers (the story of Marguerite), the author understands that Marguerite’s incredible adventure is not going to be just another book, or even the occasion for a political essay on the genre, but an invitation to probe her own depths as a creative torn between her family and her work. Isn’t writing in fact an abstract motherhood? What is most fascinating about this hybrid story at the intersection of essay and novel is the freedom with which Ramqvist moves from century to century and from universal to intimate. It’s an understatement to say that we are moved.”
Le Figaro (FR)
“The Bear Woman is a forceful, political novel about gender that explores both the position of the author and how women have been portrayed throughout history. Ramqvist navigates between fact and fiction and finds her form in a beautiful hybrid of both genres.”
Vårt Land (NO)
”The Bear Woman hides a grotesque story about being abandoned but surviving, told in an unsentimental way and with masterful restraint, keeping the reader in a tight grip. The brutality of the story is brought to life by statements about Marguerite, that she for example did not exist before Jean-Francois de la Rocque de Roberval tried to kill her […] The Bear Woman is like a Russian doll that always has more underneath the current layer, and then even more under the next one. This gradual revelation, with dense focus on the writers’ life, is a gripping and different journey into a distant past that to this day, seems highly relevant.”
Stavanger Aftenblad (NO)
“The text is an elegant mix of essayistic passages on writing and gender and more typical fictional sections […] I thoroughly enjoy this tempo, it’s like sitting and watching the fog lift.”
“Brilliantly intellectual about writing guilt and motherhood – The Bear Woman can be read over and over again. Karolina Ramqvist’s new novel kicks off in an implausible female destiny, while at the same time it depicts the inner writing process. […] The Bear Woman begins with death and darkness, but is really about life when it burns at its hottest. It is a multi-layered portrayal of survival, motherhood, and the true motives of a text. […] Similar to authors like Ariel Levy, Sheila Heti, and Maggie Nelson, Karolina Ramqvist portrays life’s components in so many layers that The Bear Woman deserves to be read over and over again. […] Ramqvist’s story – it’s shattering, one that pierces both mind and heart.”
Svenska Dagbladet (SE)
“A beautiful and unforgettable tale of women, history and survival.”
Västerbotten Kuriren (SE)
“In her new book, which is a fusion of novel and essay, Karolina Ramqvist breaks new ground in an ambitious story about a woman who lived during the 16th century. It is spontaneous, beautiful and captivating.”
Skaraborgs Läns Tidning (SE)
“Together, the different themes of the novel create a taut and beautiful story, and I realize that the story has become its own – as is the art of great fiction – and it does so brilliantly.”
Gefle Dagblad (SE)
“In The Bear Woman, Ramqvist creates a sensitive balance between the essayistic, autobiographical, and auto fictive, which results in a suggestive and thought provoking synthesis.”
“The Bear Woman is not a book to passively consume, but rather one to reflect on. At its best, it will make readers turn their focus back on themselves. Through it, I can see my own stubbornness. Feminism as a concept is just over 100 years old, though the women’s movement is of course older. Why should I let the word be defined by its abuse in recent years? It is a feat to write a novel rooted in a contemporary age that makes our time feel like a piece of history. Ramqvist excels with her thoughtful distance.”
“Karolina Ramqvist writes openly and with crystal clear precision. […] The Bear Woman is a meta novel which is not like other meta novels, and at the same time a historical novel, which is not like other historical novels. The central protagonist is the author herself, and it is both captivating and touching to follow her passionate relationship with the elusive and remarkable Marguerite de La Rocque.”
Skånska Dagbladet (SE)
“Karolina Ramqvist’s The Bear Woman is an outstanding novel. […] After just a few pages, I am hooked and am forced to constantly moisten my thumb to turn the pages quicker. The novel, the book, grows into a complex and philosophical work about life, death, body, soul, femininity, power, money, the past and present, parenthood, truth, lies and how writing ties to truth-telling and honesty relates to all this. Karolina Ramqvist’s prose is exact and transparent. The text is full of tangible details and it is a luxury to read this dense and thought-provoking book.”
Värmlands Folkblad (SE)