Summary and book reviews of The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert

The Lion Seeker

By Kenneth Bonert

The Lion Seeker
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2013,
    576 pages.
    Paperback: 2 Sep 2014,
    576 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

Are you a stupid or a clever?

Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger's mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mother's question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburg's poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?

Isaac's mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.

Meanwhile, South Africa's history, bound up with Europe's but inflected with its own accents - Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English - begins to unravel. Isaac's vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaac's fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mother's secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.

A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught - hearts open and wrecked - between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.

Gitelle: A Prologue

Whatever crouched beyond the lakes and forests of her green life was unseeable as night. She had never studied a map till it came time to leave forever and then her fingertips traced ceaselessly over what her mind could not picture. The mysteries beat in her like a second heart. The pinprick of her village lay closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia than she'd ever known; the whole country was but a slither in a howling world. There were salt oceans, desert kingdoms. She had the words and the colours on the map but nothing more.

When they stopped at the cemetery on the way out, the carriage driver Nachman said, —A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem. Dead ones never come back from the grave. The old saying meant what's done is done but was turned upside down in his wry mouth: here it was the living who would never come back to these graves at the far end of Milner Gass, near the spring and Yoffe's mill, flashes of the lake silver ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Gitelle is the main character in the prologue, but as the novel continues, Isaac becomes the focus. How does Gitelle, Isaac's mother, maintain a central role? Is this story hers or Isaac's?

  2. Both parents, Gitelle in her emphatic admonitions and Abel in his subtle snippets, advise their children. Abel counsels Rively when she questions him about life, love, and God: "When my fingers are talking for me in my work then my heart is quiet, and my head, and that's when I sometimes can hear Him whispering. It's written that it's this whisper of God that sustains the world...You only have to have a good heart and to do what you love to do with a good heart, that's all you need in this world" (26). Is finding ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

The author skillfully weaves threads of social issues throughout the plot, realistically conveying the political climate in pre-war South Africa, touching on the discrimination against blacks as well as the rising anti-Semitism of the day. I was particularly impressed by the complexity of Bonert's protagonist, Isaac. He isn't always very likeable; he's uneducated, he's unattractive, he makes bad choices, and he hurts people (both physically and emotionally). Sometimes, though, he shows himself to be caring and vulnerable, with a good heart buried in there somewhere.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Publishers Weekly

Bonert's debut is lengthy, but the pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film.

Library Journal

The length and use of the vernacular may be difficult for some readers, but Bonert's book is worth the effort. For readers interested in Jewish or African fiction or literary, multicultural fiction.

Kirkus Reviews

Too long by a hundred pages, but a promising first step.

National Post Canada

When a novel grabs and holds me it tends to be the kind for lingering over, maximizing immersion. Some writing impels you with a force that feels all your own.

Author Blurb Tim O'Brien
What a rare and splendid achievement this novel is - emotionally gripping, intellectually challenging, deftly plotted, skillfully composed, and vibrantly alive with the images and sounds and textures and human flurry of another time and place. I was dazzled.

Author Blurb Lynn Freed, author of House of Women and The Servants' Quarters
Here is the South African novel I've been waiting for. Kenneth Bonert tells it true, not safe...the South Africa he gives us [is] vivid, raw, dangerous, shot through with moral complexity.

Author Blurb David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World and Natasha: And Other Stories
The Lion Seeker is a powerful and thoroughly engrossing novel, grand in scope, richly imagined, full of dramatic incident, and crafted in a prose that is by turns roughhewn and lyrical.

Reader Reviews
Melinda

The Lion Seeker
I could not put this book down. I thoroughly enjoyed it from the first page to the ending. I loved how the author weaved very difficult time periods of history together, to unveil truths and half-truths that shaped not only the protagonist and her ...   Read More

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The Voyage of the Damned

One of the subjects raised often throughout The Lion Seeker is the difficulty Jews faced leaving Europe as WWII ramped up. The voyage of the MS St. Louis, sometimes referred to as "The Voyage of the Damned," is referenced in passing.

After Kristallnacht – "The Night of Broken Glass" – on November 9-10, 1938, many Jews started taking steps to leave Germany for other, safer countries. One such attempt occurred when the Hamburg-based MS St. Louis set sail on May 13, 1939 with 937 mostly Jewish German refugees aboard, headed for sanctuary in Cuba.

Captain Gustav Schröder The passengers celebrated when the boat left German waters. The captain, Gustav Schröder (1885-1959) insisted that the Jews be treated as any other tourists aboard would...

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