The Lioness is a shockingly messy book given the skill and experience of the author. I was flummoxed on how to grade it upon finishing it and still find myself trying to balance the good and bad to arrive at a rating that is fair.
When Hollywood super star Katie Barstow marries struggling gallery owner David Hill in the fall of 1964, she pays for an extra extravagant wedding and honeymoon to celebrate the event. They start in Paris, naturally, which would seem the perfect foil for gorgeous, sophisticated Katie, but it is the African safari trip that follows it which Katie is especially excited about. Katie and David bring some of their nearest and dearest with them on their trek through Tanzania: her brother Billy and his pregnant wife Margie; Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and her husband Felix; Katie’s agent, Peter Merrick; Terrance Dutton, a Black actor who recently starred with Katie in a highly controversial film, and her publicist Reggie Stout. The plan is simply to spend their days sight-seeing – watching giraffes bend their long, heavy necks to get a drink from the river, see a mama lion and her cubs lazing in the sun during a hot day, watching antelope frolic across fields. Their guides, led by legendary Serengeti big-game hunter Charlie Patton and the skilled Benjamin Kikwete, are experts at the art of making the wilderness luxurious and glamorous, providing their guests with chilled before-dinner drinks, hot baths and outstanding meals cooked over open fires. The goal is for the Hollywood tourists to have plenty of photos and stories to share with their friends back home once the adventure is over.
But the adventure has barely started when the unthinkable happens. A team of Russians attacks their little entourage, killing many of their beloved guides and herding the Hollywood hostages into jeeps for a ride deep into the wilderness. It looks like a simple shakedown for money and they certainly picked a well-heeled group as a target. Looks can be deceiving however, and Katie and her friends are about to find out that there is nothing truly simple about what is happening to them.
The first thirty percent of the book is spent introducing the characters, especially the practical, kind, talented Katie. She’s clever and handles her fame and fortune without being elitist. plus she’s wise beyond her years due to her tough childhood. David is almost a blank space beside her, a man whose life seems to be defined by his father’s clandestine work for the U.S. government. He and Kaite were childhood friends but other than that, I wasn’t sure why Katie married him. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Katie is besties with Carmen – Carmen is as smart and down-to-earth as Katie is. Her husband Felix, by contrast. is shown as cowardly and conniving – once we get to know him, we realize he’s going to be a real liability in their situation. Both Reggie and Peter, the two older and wiser gentlemen on the trip, are shown to be courageous, resourceful people, as are Billy and Margie. Charlie Patton is as much of an enigma as David, but Benjamin Kiwete and Terrence Dutton are marvelously brave, kind and intelligent. I tell you about all these people because with just one exception, we get viewpoint chapters from every one of them. This plethora of voices, however, doesn’t give us a panoramic view of what’s happening nor does it actually provide us with a clear understanding of each player. The crowded page space instead leaves us with winsome sketches of most of these folks, with only a few of them given enough fodder to help us know who they really are and to cause us to care for them.
The plot feels haphazard as well. Most of the time, stories like this are designed to showcase the indomitability of the human will and to help us see how crucibles forge heroes. That does happen here to an extent, but the construct of events is rather flawed and lacks nuance. For the most part, those characters we expect to be chicken are, and those we expect to rise above everything and become champions do.
The hints we receive regarding the motivating factor for the whole event sound rather intriguing but in the end fizzle like a wet firecracker. The character it hinges upon is rather hapless and clueless, and subtlety and refinement in viewing both that person and the mitigating events are, once again, lacking. Taking a look at why various people groups are working with the Russians and just what makes the CIA as culpable as our cruel kidnappers would have been a far better use of narrative than the time introducing us to/giving us the viewpoint of several of the outlying players.
In fairness, the author does try to show how prejudice and the exploitation of the African continent and its people is wrong, but once more his lengthy look at occurrences through the multiple, mostly white lenses of the Hollywood contingent dilute whatever his message might have been into a rather meaningless aside which skates the line of being a form of prejudice in itself with its surface view of a deep and resounding problem.
There’s a line in the book that is very un-PC regarding the mentally ill which pulled me completely out of the story for a moment. Saying that hyenas sound like “the highpitched giggles of manians in a mental hospital” and emphasizing what vicious scavengers those creatures are denigrates some of our neediest citizens.
Given all the negatives, I was surprised at how very readable the story is. Bohjalian has a prose style which sucks one into the tale and doesn’t let you go. Like a meal that tastes bad but smells delicious, this story is so alluring initially that you find yourself completely drawn in. It is only as you finish that you realize how unsatisfying the experience turned out to be. I was frustrated by the multiple points of view because they kept me from knowing any one character well, but at the same time each is written so compellingly that I found myself fascinated by and engrossed in their individual aspects of the grander narrative. And the premise was completely intriguing – I couldn’t help but turn the pages to find out who was behind the kidnapping and why the whole thing was happening. The primary problem actually lies with the brevity. Each piece is fantastic – and given time to flesh things out more, the sketchy characterizations, superficial views of complex issues, and incomplete treatment of the puzzle driving the plot could have been resolved.
Mine will probably be the minority opinion but ultimately, I can’t recommend The Lioness. I have no doubt that the many fans of the author will turn this into a best-seller but in my view, readers should look elsewhere for their thrills.
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I've been an avid reader since 2nd grade and discovered romance when my cousin lent me Lord of La Pampa by Kay Thorpe in 7th grade. I currently read approximately 150 books a year, comprised of a mix of Young Adult, romance, mystery, women's fiction, and science fiction/fantasy.