To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi – Book Review

Title: To Cook A Bear

Author: Mikael Niemi

Translator: Deborah Bragan-Turner

Genre: Historical Crime/Fiction

Publisher: MacLehose Press

Publication Date: 3rd September 2020

Rating: 5/5

Cover:

Summary:

It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol.

Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God. 

When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them. 

To Cook a Bear explores how communities turn inwards, how superstition can turn to violence, and how the power of language can be transformative in a richly fascinating mystery.

Review:

I was so excited to read To Cook a Bear so my expectations were high! Happily I can say it managed to actually surpass those expectations. It is a phenomenally good book. The story follows the real life preacher Lars Levi Læstadius as he uses early forensic investigative techniques to try to uncover who is attacking young women in the region. A ferocious bear is suspected, however Læstadius and his apprentice of sorts, a young Sami boy named Jussi rescued from abject poverty and abuse, believe there is something more sinister going on.

I cannot praise this book highly enough. It is gorgeously written with a lyrical feel to it which completely draws the reader in. It is both complex and deeply thought provoking whilst at the same time being intensely readable. I flew through the chapters entirely caught up in the evocative setting and fascinating characters. The story is fictional but Læstadius himself is real and the author has brought this intelligent and sometimes contradictory man to life in a spectacularly authentic feeling fashion. We experience the events of To Cook a Bear through the eyes of Jussi, a young Sami boy Læstadius rescued from the side of the road. Jussi suffered through traumatic abuse in his early childhood but has found a sort of family with Læstadius. Unfortunately there is more pain to come in his young life and my heart just broke for him throughout the book.

I have to be honest and say there are some moments of shocking brutality in To Cook a Bear which is hard to read at times but there is also so much beauty and a real sense of tranquility to be found. The prose is so stunning and the rendering of 19th century Sweden is endlessly fascinating, especially the folklore from Sami culture. It’s not an area I am overly familiar with and I was so intrigued by the way these characters experience life in the extreme climate they have to deal with. To Cook a Bear is a truly wonderful book about faith, prejudice, poverty and morality. It is masterfully written and translated beautifully. This gripping and intelligent book is definitely going to be one of my favourites of the year. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Thank you to Corinna Zifko at MacLehose Press for having me on the blog tour! I received a copy of the book from the publisher. My review is entirely my own honest opinion.

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