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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The passengers celebrated when the boat left German waters. The captain, Gustav Schröder (1885-1959) insisted that the Jews be treated as any...
In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the effects of Libyan strongman Khadafy's 1969 September revolution. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.
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Oldest romance writer in the world dies aged 105. Books #124 and #125 to be published next year(Dec 10 2013) Ida Pollock, author of more than 120 books, and believed to be the world's oldest romantic novelist, has died at the age of 105.