Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

Exit, Pursued by a Bear - E.K. Johnston

Initial reaction: I am most definitely in the minority of opinions surrounding this book. Having said that, "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" definitely has its heart in the right place and I think had the intention of being an inspiring read with a protagonist who, in the aftermath of her rape, faces life with much conviction and purpose to not allow the experience to define her or what she wants. That's awesome, I have no contention to that since every person's experience with coping with the aftermath of being raped is different.

What I did have contention with is the fact this narrative seems to gloss over some really important issues that occur with Hermione's experience. Plus, one does not need to convey strength or purpose in the aftermath of a horrific event by putting down other reactions - even measures of grief - to such events. There's no one definition of "normal" or "strength" when it comes to discussions of experiences like this, and I feel like the narrative contradicted itself on a number of occasions. Unfortunate, because I think this book could've been even more of a powerhouse for impact in detailing the individual experience of this character. *sighs*

Full review:

"Exit, Pursuit by a Bear" is a loosely based reimaging of Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" (more like some characters and references are made to the original play, but it's really its own story. "Exit, pursued by a bear" remains one of my favorite turns of phrase for stage direction though from Shakespeare's plays). Hermione is a young woman who is the peppy, energetic leader of her cheerleading squad. She seems to have an attentive (if a bit pushy) boyfriend, great friends and family surrounding her. Things take a fateful turn after one night when Hermione is drugged and raped - left by a nearby lake at the camp in which her team's competition takes place. She has no memory of what was done to her, and while she has something of a quirky personality and ability to distance herself from horrible things, she fights against having her life defined and maligned by her rape and the spiral of events that follow in the aftermath of it. It really has more ties to Shakespeare rather than Veronica Mars, and I'm thinking the only reason the Veronica Mars comparison comes about has to do with a very pertinent plot point that was a part of the series and Veronica's experiences (and how she was able to open up about it). People who have seen the series probably know the plot point I'm discussing, but Veronica Mars (as a series) had far more time and care taken to develop that conflict than this book chose to delve into. So it's a very odd comparison, to be quite honest.

I was really taken into the story to begin with. I liked Hermione's confident personality, I liked the descriptions of the cheerleading and I loved the supportive friendship between Hermione and Polly. But after a certain point, the quality of this book took a very sharp decline and decided to rush things to heck and back, particularly dealing with some of the repercussions and events that happened after Hermione's rape. I was left disappointed by how the narrative chose to deal with the overarching conflict surrounding Hermione's rape - on numerous levels - and even found myself offended by the suggestions made by the narrative in this measure.

No two people have the same experience and dealings with the aftermath of rape. It's wrong for people to try to box reactions as to how someone will feel after any form of sexual assault. Some may feel more hampered by the weight of their grief, sending them into a spiral from which they may not recover from considering they know their rapist quite well (see Amber Smith's "The Way I Used to Be"). Some may know their rapist and gradually come to terms with acknowledging that not only it happened to them but they find a way to reveal that to their family, friends, loved ones after much hardship (see Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak" or Courtney C. Stevens "Almost Normal"), some may find themselves the subject of ridicule among their peers and community members from the harmful effects of rape culture (See Aaron Hartzler's "What We Saw", Alina Klein's "Rape Girl", Courtney Summers' "All the Rage" and "Some Girls Are"). There are also narratives that deal with childhood sexual abuse (Barry Lyga's "Boy Toy" and Elizabeth Scott's "Living Dead Girl.") There are also rape narratives that deal with what happens when a friend or family member is accused of rape and the complex emotions that come with recognizing the reality of that (Jenny Downham's "You Against Me").

But in addition to those narratives (notice I'm being inclusive and not excluding these different types of stories, many of these cross in focus if you find yourself perusing the narratives), you may also have a scenario where a young woman makes an attempt to cope with the aftermath of her rape by pushing forward against the pain and reaffirming the things that maker her life worthwhile - by focusing on things that help her keep control of the things she wants her life to be about against the pushback of others who seek to define and demean her experiences. By establishing control over the things she knows, loves and can make sense of. This should've been the story of "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" - at least that's what it seems to aim for. There were places in the narrative where I distinctly saw this and thought it worked for the novel. Sadly though, this narrative actually worked more against that focus than anything else, and there are moments when I was truly taken aback by how it plays into harmful narratives that actually demean those who are coping in the aftermath of sexual assault. The reason I say this is because there are times when Hermione subtly undermines those who feel grief or "fall apart". In that the book sends mixed messages - if you're willing to accept that people think and feel differently in the aftermath of rape and sexual assault, then why establish such a stringent definition of the push towards "normal"? Why diminish the experiences of people who DO fall apart after this experience? To me - it really doesn't make sense.

Instead of establishing Hermione's experiences as being worthwhile in itself and as a part of the different narratives of rape/SA survivors, it instead undermines the myriad of narratives by creating an ideal or best scenario where the conflicts aren't necessarily dealt with, where Hermione's struggles aren't necessarily dimensional for the way they're presented. It's one thing to consider weighing the balance of her emotions at times (which this narrative does considering she doesn't remember the rape, but she still feels the weight of grief in places), but it's another to glide past them by not having her really think about them and recognize the weight they have. Sure, she's doing what she feels is best for her, but it doesn't fully take on the weights and pushes past them without so much in the measure of recognition.

I think "Exit, Pursued by a Bear" is worth reading providing another narrative voice and experience in the aftermath of rape/SA, but I feel disappointed by the way the narrative started off with promise only to really shortchange the discussion by the nature of its presentation. I feel like it could've been a stronger, deeper, and more inclusive narrative in the aftermath of reading it.

Overall score: 3/5 stars.