The Lion Seeker vividly illustrates what it was to come of age in a landscape of political unrest and social corruption.
The Lion Seeker is Kenneth Bonert’s first novel, and Knopf Canada’s only title in 2013’s “New Faces of Fiction” program. His short stories have appeared in Grain and The Fiddlehead. The South African born writer now calls Toronto home. While working as a journalist his articles appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post and other publications.
Within the first few chapters of The Lion Seeker I was put in mind of Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner.” In that both stories are (unbelievably) first novels. Both main characters (young boys) are coming of age during times of historic brutality. (The Kite Runner is set in Afghanistan during the fall of the Monarchy to the collapse of the Taliban.) Both stories examine ethnic tensions. Finally, both stories had me hooked immediately. Beyond these comparisons, the stories are stand-alone, exceptional, originals.
Bonert delivers a knowledgeable portrait of the many facets of African/Jewish, rich/poor, black/white existence, during the sociopolitical unrest leading up to and during Hitler’s regimented slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Through lyrical prose, authentic vernacular, and vivid landscapes the reader is delivered to Africa, in all of her brilliance and brutality.
Isaac Helger is the son of Jewish immigrants, living in Doornfontein, Johannesburg. His mother, Gitelle, is his greatest influence in life. She instills in Issac a need to be clever and successful. His mission in life is to provide her with a fine house of their own, and to help her rescue her family members, which remain in Lithuania, before Hitler’s regime invades. These duties drive Isaac in most of his actions. He doesn’t want to be “a stupid.” When his desires couple with lest than ethical people, many things go wrong. He is often led astray. There are also family secrets that haunt Gitelle: Secrets that have left her mentally and physically scarred. Secrets Isaac is desperate to know.
Isaac’s beliefs change throughout the pages. His youthful understanding that whites are superior to blacks is challenged many times when he begins to understand loyalty and see first hand which culture is more loyal to their brethren. This belief is fractured completely with the onset of Jews being seen as inferior to pure whites. This is just one facet of his education on his journey from boyhood to manhood. Isaac is no saint. He tries the easy road to riches and working hard for riches. Neither path is smooth. He concludes that, “Men are worse than dogs.” He learns about the class system, bigotry, broken promises, heartbreak, moral corruption, and lies. He becomes jaded and vengeful: his actions teach him about the relentlessness of regret.
The Lion Seeker is delivered in three parts. By the final page of part two, Isaac has made a decision that is morally devastating. His character and the story seem beyond salvation. Then a revelation:
“How a lie can feel more solid than the truth when it makes its own. The rightness of it calms him right through. It’s how it should be…”
The final third of the story is about actions being revealed. Isaac learns the harsh lesson that the journey towards the goal is more important than attaining the goal. A quest for revenge brings to light family secrets, forgiveness and path towards redemption.
People work with the tools they are given, for better or for worse. Life is difficult enough without living during a time of war and persecution. It’s hard to know what any of us would do in that landscape. Our families and our environments give shape to what we become… the rest is up to us. The Lion Seeker is a story about life choices and it is worth reading!
Expected publication: February 26th, 2013 by Knopf Canada
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