Summary and book reviews of The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert

The Lion Seeker

by Kenneth Bonert

The Lion Seeker
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2013, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2014, 576 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

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 ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about The Lion Seeker. Join the discussion! You can see the full discussion here.

"The only thing that really counts in this world is the fist." Is this philosophy still applied today?
The reference to the "fist" in the question refers to physical domination. I do not find that Isaac lived by the fist. Gitelle's direction to Isaac to be a "Clever", and Avrom's advice to be a lion, both of which Isaac took to heart, spoke to ... - roberts

Can you think of any other couples in literature with differences in background similar to Isaac and Yvonne? How do Isaac and Yvonne compare to these others?
One could go on and on listing all the characters in literature who looked beyond their social status for a mate and ended up suffering the consequences of unrequited love. This is one aspect of human nature--reaching for the unreachable-- that will... - MarieA

Can you think of any other similar novels? How does The Lion Seeker compare to other Jewish literature?
The South African setting was unusual and interesting. I didn't realize South Africa was an early destination for Jewish immigrants. Probably the central question of why he didn't move heaven and earth to help his family escape from what was ... - janeh

Do we need to like a protagonist for a novel to be successful? Can you think of other flawed or unlikable "heroes" in literature?
I have never thought it was necessary to like the protagonist if the book is teaching you something new about a culture in a time frame. The core of the book is learning about the situation and options that the people had at that time and place. ... - joycew

How did the novel's use of dialect and other stylistic choices affect your reading experience?
I think the use of dialect does slow you down as most reviewers have noted; however, I think it added to the experience of being a Lithuanian - Jewish immigrant in South Africa! The lack of quotation marks I started to adjust to after a while. - elise

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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).

Full Review Members Only (846 words).

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

Pamela Joy

Long read, but worth the time
The Lion Seeker has a very good storyline and is an intricate weave of history, character development and cultural differences in South Africa as World War II looms on the horizon of one Jewish family. Certainly an excellent work for a first-time ...   Read More

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

N

I wanted more
As an American reader of South African writing, I wanted more. More detail, depth, and description. At times, the book knocked it out of the park and met these expectations and other times fell short.

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Beyond the Book

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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