Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Book Review: A Boy And A Bear In A Boat by Dave Shelton

Of all the Carnegie shortlisted books, A Boy and A Bear in a Boat is the one aimed at the youngest audience. It is a deceptively simple tale and the nuts and bolts of the plot are pretty much covered by the title. It’s the sort of book that reviewers would say raises a smile, call ‘charming’ or ‘quirky’ and then not even contemplate garlanding with the highest accolades. Yet there is more to Dave Shelton’s tale than this. As young an audience as this is aimed at, it is arguably the most philosophical and unpretentiously wise of the books on this year’s shortlist.

No, I haven’t gone off my rocker I assure you. The reason this works so well is because it is truly unique in being so unconventional, yet warm, gentle and engaging with it. The novel is essentially a two hander between its titular characters, but names are never revealed. The bear is a masterpiece of deadpan surrealism: depicted in such mundane, humanist terms that not once does it at all seem unusual he’s a talking bear, never mind rowing a boat. Where are they supposed to be sailing to? Hardly seems to matter: the boy simply asks to be taken to the ‘other side’ when he gets on board…

This isn’t quite Waiting for Godot. Stuff does happen as they sail across the ocean blue. But, for me, the incidents in themselves are very much of secondary importance, dramatic as some of them seem to be. What is most important is their experiences, shared (they’re together on a boat in an endless stretch of sea) or otherwise (they both react to this in rather different ways). The setting is key, but only in so far as it allows the book to explore just exactly what life is, what it means and how we should live it.

I apologise if that sounds trite, but these are issues that philosophers grapple with, and this is very much a philosophical novel. And yes, it is one for both its intended audience and readers in general to appreciate. Trust me: read it and all will become clear. In wilfully jettisoning plotting conventions, yet weaving a compelling tale all the same, this book succeeds in having a strong head and a sturdy heart. To not put too fine a point on it, Shelton has achieved something rather remarkable.


  1. wow - this review makes me want to read the book! I'll have to keep an eye out for it when I visit a bookstore next.

  2. Brilliant review, Joe. You have said what I was thinking but was unable to put into words as well as you have.

  3. Aw shucks you guys! Don't go making me feel more big headed than I already am...