n 2019, Julia Phillips published a celebrated novel called “Disappearing Earth,” set on a remote Russian peninsula called Kamchatka.

It’s not a place many Western readers were likely to have heard of before. Indeed, a travel story in The Washington Post noted, “You come to Kamchatka for two reasons: bears and volcanoes.”

Now, for her second novel, Phillips has returned to America, but she’s still showing a penchant for far-flung, disconnected places. This time, it’s San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington state. And at least one of those ursine creatures has come lumbering back with her.

A grizzly haunts the pages of “Bear.” It’s hard to identify at first, and so unlikely that everyone’s giddy with excitement, but there it is: a bear swimming in the San Juan Channel, where they’d never seen one. Folks on the ferry take pictures and call out to the animal. Later, the sheriff’s deputy suggests it could have been a deer. Please. It was no deer.

But what those hundreds of pounds of muscle and fur might mean is challenging to see through the dark woods of this intense novel, which begins with an epigraph from the Brothers Grimm. For almost 300 pages, Phillips wends along the vague barrier that separates pasture from forest, reason from madness.

Once upon a time, two siblings, Sam and her elder sister, Elena, frolicked on San Juan. The rocky bluffs and woodland trails served as their playground. “The sisters crouched on the forest floor on their property, studying mushrooms, telling each other stories,” Phillips writes. “They were heroines. They made magic. They were the girls at the center of a fairy tale, and they, along with their mother, would live in such bliss all their days.”


But that Grimm past has been replaced by a grim present. When the novel opens in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam and Elena are stuck in dead-end jobs and struggling to take care of their dying mother. Adequate health care is cumbersome to access from San Juan Island and, in any case, too expensive for a family drowning in $11,000 in credit card debt.

We experience this story from Sam’s point of view, which turns out to be decisive. Sam works the concession stand on the ferry, handing out drinks and plastic-wrapped cinnamon rolls to wealthy tourists with “orthodontist-straightened smiles” and Seattle tech millionaires who leave miserly tips. “They didn’t see her. They never would,” Phillips writes, channeling Sam’s simmering resentment. “It was all bare routine. Brew the coffee. Dump the grounds. Restock the sugar packets. Get through one more shift.” During her off hours, Sam toils away for pennies on consumer surveys for a consumer economy that largely excludes her.

Elena doesn’t do much better working at a nearby golf club. “How exhausting. This slog. Endless. No matter their jobs or their wages, this is how things would be, as long as they lived on the island.”

Only one thought makes the drudgery endurable for Sam: knowing that, when their beloved mother passes away – soon, surely – she and Elena will be able to sell the family house and make a new life for themselves somewhere far away – “versions of paradise they made. Places that were tiny, salt-smelling, barely visible to anyone else. Places that were, and would be, their own.” It’s a dream Sam has been rolling under her tongue for years. “Slog less, live more. Become the people they had never before had the freedom to be.”

But then, early in the novel, we hit this one-sentence chapter: “They woke the next day to a bear at the door.”

How perfectly calibrated that page is: a single line on an otherwise blank page. It invokes memories of our earliest reading experiences when we “came to the place where the wild things are.” There is, after all, something childlike about these deceptively cuddly animals – from Little Bear to Paddington to the Hundred Acre Wood.


Spotting the bear right outside their door – “that dreadful, holy sight” – the sisters are terrified and excited in equal measure. “Is this real?” Elena whispers. “Sam could not wrap her mind around the size of this particular thing,” Phillips writes. “The bear’s proximity threw off her sense of scale. … It had capacities they could not imagine.”

“Bear” may remind readers of Alice Hoffman’s fantasy-flecked novels, and Phillips sprinkles around the fairy dust liberally in some sections. But she’s actually working closer to the realm of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw,” in which the central character blankets the story with her distorting anxieties.

The bear remains not only elusive but essentially unfathomable. “Nobody,” Phillips writes, “had yet gotten a good picture of the thing.” It’s likely that every reader will project something different onto this hairy, polymorphic symbol, but perhaps Phillips’ sly novel captures the cumulative stress of long-term nursing, the kind of crazy-making environment that develops when dreading a loved one’s death even while pining for release from the prison of care.

For Sam, the bear is an existential terror that triggers memories of their mother’s abusive boyfriend. But as she grows more and more alarmed about its presence on the island, Elena regards the animal as a welcome relief from the tedium of their days – no, more than that: “Elena talked about her sighting the way a person might if an angel touched down in front of them,” Phillips writes. “After crossing the bear’s path, the simple fact of her life had to be recast as some sort of miracle.”

There is, of course, no reconciling these impressions. In a sense, what develops between the two sisters is a battle of interpretation, a wrestling match over whose definition of the beast will prevail: horror or enchantment.

All this is spun with an ever-tightening weave of dread. Wisely, Phillips keeps her book relatively short and uses the story’s narrow focus to emphasize the sisters’ physical isolation. Even the novel’s young-adult tone, which feels cloying at first, soon reveals itself as wholly intentional, a reflection of Sam’s arrested development exacerbated by those two years of pandemic stasis. Impoverished, alienated and desperately lonely, she’s retreated further than she realizes into a world of fragile hope. When that shatters, as it must, the situation becomes more erratic and dangerous than you know what.

Comments are not available on this story.