On the bookshelf
By Chris Bohjalian
Double day: 336 pages, $28
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Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of 22 novels, achieves something rare these days: he combines prolific output with genuine range and originality. Her 2021 novel, “The Hour of the Witch,” about colonial Massachusetts, came out a year after “The Red Lotus,” about an American lost in contemporary Vietnam. “The Flight Attendant,” a contemporary thriller released in 2018, is now in its second season as an HBO Max series. And her new novel, ‘The Lioness’, is set in early 1960s East Africa during a Hollywood star’s honeymoon safari.
Katie Barstow has reached the top: Not only is she a sought-after movie actress, but she just married the love of her life, David Hill, a man she’s known since childhood who now works as a gallery owner. art in Los Angeles. She’s beautiful and 30, and she has the wherewithal to bring along a solid entourage on her journey through the Serengeti: psychotherapist brother Billy and his pregnant wife Margie; best friend and fellow actress Carmen and her budding hubby, Felix; her agent, director, and Terrance Dutton, her favorite co-star, who happens to be black.
These old-school glampers plan to “photograph the elephants, not shoot them,” while maintaining all the creature comforts: canvas tubs filled at night by their guides, a “kerosene ice maker” (because “you had to have a good gin and tonic at the end of a long day of safari”) and real beds set up in their tents.
Best prepared plans. Bohjalian is a thriller writer at heart, eager to shake up charming wildlife-spotting scenes with a deadly twist. One morning when tourists and guides have packed two jeeps for an expedition, gunfire erupts. Most of the African guides are immediately killed, leaving one group to slip to safety and another behind. Yes, more deaths will come, some of them quite surprising and heartbreaking. For all its open skies, “The Lioness” is more like an Agatha Christie locked mansion mystery, complete with bodies falling like clockwork, than a gripping survival thread.
Where is Bohjalian one-ups Christie (with apologies to the leading lady) at in her character development, going beyond the main question (what do these Russian mercenaries want with their kidnapped Americans?) to explore the psychology of the survivors . Each chapter alternates real-time drama with stories that may or may not overlap. The result is a two-axis puzzle, interconnecting individual survival stories with a larger and much more sinister game.
Using strategically placed clues, readers can understand what the Russians are really up to, which is more than just collecting a ransom. Yet the strength of “The Lioness” lies not in these twists, but in the stories that illuminate them.
Ultimately, each person’s motivation has something to do with their destiny. Billy and Katie, for example, were raised by alcoholic and violent parents whose pathologies still darken the lives of their children. When the mercenaries throw Billy alone in a dark tent, he is taken back to the many times his mother locked him in a hall closet overnight, alone and terrified.
This post-traumatic paralysis determines what will happen next to poor Billy, just as the past is a prelude for the rest of the glamorous crew. Bohjalian follows his players as carefully as a leopard follows his prey, matching psychology to fate with almost pathological precision.
Where it is most exhausted is in the representation of African characters. A surviving guide, Benjamin Kikwete, and his older mentor, Muema Kambona, sometimes sound like Hollywood versions of themselves, using tired terms like “bwana” and saying improbable things about the landscape such as “It doesn’t could ever get boring”. On the other hand, Bohjalian also makes shrewd observations about these men whose livelihood depends on wealthy Western tourists. And he’s smart enough to avoid goofy dialects.
It must have been even more difficult to build Terrance Dutton as a character without succumbing to the cliché, especially since Terrance portrays so many black actors of the era – a man driven to add what 1960s filmmakers considered like exotic, but never allowed to film a love scene with a white woman. Terrance comes to life in a way guidebooks don’t, especially when he reflects on black actor Dorothy Dandridge’s relationship with married director Otto Preminger: “God, the things they had whispered… was Hollywood just a few years ago. His bitterness at his relegation to depreciating roles both on and off screen sets Terrance apart from the other survivors.
And yes, there is a lioness among them, a woman whose power and determination elevate her above her comrades. As in many of her other novels, including “The Hour of the Witch” and “The Secrets of Eden”, Bohjalian puts forward a strong woman in a chaotic context not to insist on gender equality, but to illustrate the particular and distinctive strengths of women. As in the savannah, the lioness in this book is associated with a lion, an aging man whose deeply traumatic service in World War II prepares him for the present struggle in a way he wishes it were not. .
Times change; the same goes for the styles of movie stars and the types of honeymoons they take. But the entourage is forever, and it’s the breakup of one such group that gives Bohjalian a big cat’s treat of a plot. Drawing on its cast for color and depth, “The Lioness” offers a meaty look at what makes us animals in what we call civilization — and what makes us human when out in the wild.
Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.