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The Lioness

A Novel

by Chris Bohjalian

The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian X
The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    May 2022, 336 pages

    May 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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A Masterfully Crafted Mystery Set in an Exotic Locale
Bestselling author Chris Bohjalian says his inspiration for The Lioness was movies. He loves them. One day in 2019 he found himself wondering why he had never written a Hollywood novel or a book set in the era in which he grew up, the 1960's and 70's. He had to think of a locale to which he could transport Hollywood people and put them in jeopardy. In the 1960's, the Simba rebellion was unfolding as East Africa sought to escape from colonialism, so he decided on the Serengeti with a simple premise: "The biggest star in Hollywood finally gets married and decides to bring her entire entourage with her on a honeymoon safari" which quickly goes horribly wrong.

Bohjalian and his wife were lucky to go on safari in the Serengeti to conduct research in October 2019, a trip he describes as "life-changing for me as a human being and as a novelist." Far from civilization, he watched the wildebeest cross the Mara River, and observed instances of natural predators conquering their prey. He also had the opportunity to pose numerous, frequently macabre, questions to his knowledgeable guides, who assured him that the key to remaining safe on safari is following the directions provided. The guides explained that exiting a vehicle or leaving a tent at night can prove deadly because "there are so many animals (including snakes) and trees that will kill you." Bohjalian deftly incorporates those tangible dangers into The Lioness, making it terrifyingly suspenseful. Some of his characters fail to heed the guides' warnings, while others find themselves in the wild without their guides by their side through no fault of their own. Regardless, many of Bohjalian's characters are forced to use what knowledge they possess about nature in an effort to stay alive. Not all of them succeed.

The Lioness is a masterfully crafted, engrossing story of a thirty-year-old actress, Katie Barstow, who is a major Hollywood star. She and her older brother, Billy, are the children of acclaimed stage actors who were abusive. They grew up on Central Park West in a sprawling apartment and Billy bore the brunt of their mother's toxicity as their father mostly just went along with her actions. Katie has just married Billy's lifetime best friend, David Hill, whose family resided in the same New York City apartment building. David owns a struggling art gallery in Beverly Hills, and insists that his father works for the CIA but is a 'paper-pusher" laboring in the agency's personnel department. Billy is married for the second time to Margie and they are expecting their first child.

Accompanying them on the safari are Felix Demeter, a screenwriter, and his wife, Carmen Tedesco, an actress who has appeared in films with Katie in supporting roles; actor Terrence Dutton, Katie's co-star and good friend; Reggie Stout, Katie's publicist; and Katie's agent, Peter Merrick. Charlie Patton, renowned for leading hunting safaris with Ernest Hemingway, among others, leads the expedition.

Four days into the safari, the group is kidnapped by evil Russian mercenaries and Bohjalian takes readers along with his characters on a harrowing journey. They are transported in two groups by armed captors led by an intriguing and intermittently charming leader "with ice-blue eyes and a nose that a casting director would kill for if he ever needed a boxer." As the characters attempt to discern the motive for their abduction, they witness and are subjected to appalling violence. Individually and collectively, they assess whether they can outsmart and overpower their kidnappers, and make their way to freedom. But, of course, they are far from civilization with no idea how far they might have to travel to enlist help. And they are in the Serengeti, surrounded by wildlife including leopards, hyenas, and venomous snakes, so they are forced to weight the risks, including the very real possibility that they might evade their abductors only to perish in the wild. The setting is inarguably one of Bohjalian's characters, and he vividly describes the landscape, making readers feel the remoteness and isolation, and looming presence of those things that will kill you. He unsparingly details the dangers his characters encounter. "Character and geography intersect in all of my books," he notes, but they are inextricably and palpably intertwined in The Lioness.

The narrative structure of The Lioness is creative and highly effective. The Prologue, related via a first-person narrative from, presumably, the Lioness, declares, "We went there and (most of us, anyway) died there in 1964." Each successive chapter focuses on a specific character. Bohjalian reveals both the character's history and relationship with the other characters, as well as his/her expectations for the trip and what they are experiencing in Africa. Readers learn about the characters' Hollywood careers and alliances. Bohjalian propels the story forward at a steady pace, but his deftly-timed respites from his characters' fraught circumstances allow readers to understand, relate to (or not), and develop emotional attachments to the characters so that they become invested in the characters' fates. Some of the characters are innocent victims who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for some of them, the horror they are experiencing dredges up painful memories. For instance, Katie and Billy's mother used to lock him in a large closet in their home for hours at a time. So when, with his hands and feet bound, he is tossed into a dark hut where all manner of creepy, crawly things might attack, the abuse he sustained as a child intensifies his fears and anxiety. Bohjalian acquaints readers with Benjamin Kikwete, a porter and guest liaison, who proclaims that he'd "rather die charging like a rhino than bleating like a goat." His story is nothing less than heartbreaking, if inspiring. Some of the characters harbor dark secrets and scandalous pasts that, if brought to light, would cause relationships to fracture and derail careers. Some are betrayers . . . some have been betrayed, but may not know it.

The Lioness is a cautionary tale about fame. Like the Serengeti, Hollywood is a critically important character in the book. At the beginning of each chapter, Bohjalian includes blurbs -- some actual, some invented -- from a magazine or newspaper that was published in 1964, among them The Hollywood Reporter and Movie Confidential. To do so, he researched the popular movie magazines of the era, dubbing them "Twitter's ancestor." Much the way social media does today, those magazines influenced the public's beliefs and perceptions about actors and actresses, often exploiting but sometimes keeping performers' secrets, and spreading fake news. Bohjalian also weaves pop culture history into the story, including references to stars of the day. For example, famed Caucasian film director Otto Preminger dated Dorothy Dandridge, a Black actress, but their relationship was "only alluded to" in the magazines and trade publications. As the story progresses, Bohjalian cleverly unveils how fame plays into his characters' predicament, paving the way for the horrors they experience.

And Bohjalian also explores racial tensions. Terrence Dutton, a successful Black actor, recently co-starred in a film with Katie. They have been great friends for some time, but their relationship has remained platonic, in part, because if a romance became public, Katies observes, Terrence would never again work in Hollywood. The movie they made was controversial and one particular scene stopped short of their characters kissing. Bohjalian examines how Terrence's experiences and complex emotions as a Black American visiting Africa differ from those of the other members of the group. He interacts not only with his traveling companions, but also with the African guides and porters who work for Charlie Patton. For example, Benjamin is thrilled to be serving the group and notes how down-to-earth Terrence is. He can't wait to tell his father that Terrence, who is only the third Black man from America Benjamin has ever met, told Benjamin to address him by his first name. Will he get the chance?

Reminiscent of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and, more recently, Peter Swanson's Nine Lives, characters are eliminated, one by one, in various dramatic and horrific ways. Simultaneously, Bohjalian reveals who organized the kidnapping and why, pulling together various story threads and clues dropped along the way, and again demonstrating what an adept and creative storyteller he is.

The Lioness is an engrossing, entertaining, and wildly inventive mystery populated with fully developed, compelling characters. It's a page-turner -- an adventure set in the most exotic location imaginable -- filled with plenty of themes to keep readers both guessing and thinking about the price of fame and glamor, and how well anyone can really ever know those closest to them. What might they do if faced with similar threats? And what about the title character? Who is The Lioness? Does she survive? Once again, Bohjalian has created a strong female character who exhibits bravery, determination, and resolve she did not even know she possessed until faced with unimaginable danger. By the end of the story, she confesses, "I really do see myself in my mind as a lioness . . ."

Thanks to NetGalley for an Advance Reader's Copy of the book.
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Beyond the Book:
  Serengeti National Park

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