Book Review: The Lion Seeker

13642507The Lion Seeker was a novel received from Random House Canada sometime during the early Summer, then this Fall, it became a finalist for the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award. It is also our Wink 3 Book Club choice for our November meeting. So, knowing all of this, I embarked on The Lion Seeker’s journey.

Rating: 3.5
The Lion Seeker
A Novel by Kenneth Bonert
2013 / 576 pages

In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
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?

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. (adapted from Goodreads)

The description above is not the one that I should have used here, the one that should have appeared is from the inside book jacket.  Did Bonert write this description? It did summarize beautifully The Lion Seeker, and was written much in the same flavour as Bonert’s writing. (sorry, I have since handed the book off to Jackie here at the Literary Hoarders). As well, and at times while reading I had the distinct impression of reading other Canadian works such as (East Coast author’s) The Bishop’s Man or even Glass Boys as the feeling and pace or writing was not always laid out for the reader to see on the page, there seemed to be much hidden innuendo and secrecy. The Lion Seeker overall, is slow to build, but when it does it reaches to wonderful heights.

At points while reading, the altering use of stunning, descriptive writing changing to choppy dialect or slang is what I found jarring or difficult to follow. It broke up the flow of reading for me.  For instance:

“The wounds on his face, his head, are nothing – a bruised eye socket (it’s doubtful Oberholzer even made a fist, just an open-handed swat, probably the same way he smacks his wife), plus a scabbed scrape on the forehead where’s there’s a bump like a cue ball, and a thick rope of purple lower down that his collar can hide – but he is badly hurt inside, under the skin, in his heart and in his mind, his spirit. ”

“When he closes his eyes it does not stop the tears. These tears have a viscous quality, they’re not surface water, they come up from the broken thing deep in him, they seep like translucent gel to slowly wet the pillow where he lies on his side.”

And then, the dialogue parts:

-Jumped, four of the bastards. Your lovely shvartzer friends.

– Genuine? Where was this?

-I’d rather not chit-chat about it. I’m tryna forget it happened, like.

-Isaac?

_Hey?

_I said these crimes.

_Ja?

The Lion Seeker is a sweeping saga about Isaac, a Lithuanian Jew settling in South Africa with his younger sister and mother. The trio have fled their unstable life in Lithuania to join their father/husband. Unfortunately, Isaac’s mother is disconcerted to find him settled in a ghetto-like existence, not much unlike what they left behind. Isaac’s mother is extremely focused and desperate to bring over her sisters she has had to leave behind with numerous reunion promises of a better life in South Africa . 5 sisters she is desperate to get out. 5 names Isaac is sat down and told to repeat over and over again, showing and matching each name to the face in the picture her mother always has with her. The only way this can be achieved however, is to make far more money than her husband’s watch repair business brings in. She is constantly after Isaac to keep up the”quick rich money making schemes” and is devastated when he finally, after many attempts otherwise, listens to his father instead and learns a trade with the cars. Working with cars is something that Isaac truly loves. Yet this earns nothing but disgust and contempt from his mother.

There is also the very disfigured face on Isaac’s mother that is covered up, both literally and figuratively. The lower part of her face is horribly scarred and before she came to South Africa was forced to wear a veil that covers the lower half of her face. There is a great secrecy surrounding this disfigurement and it is shrouded in veils of secrecy, much like the veils his mother used to wear to cover the wound. Isaac is forever curious to understand why and how this happened to his mother, and also the reason why she is so very desperate to bring her sisters to her, away from Lithuania. Why is his mother always crying over her collection of papers and letters? Why is the date of April 17th so significant and why does she never discuss her past?

We journey with Isaac through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, through his experiences with his one great love, his jobs, his disappointments and slow realization of what it means to be a Jew prior to WWII.  Isaac seems only aware of class differences, certainly it is a glaring difference in his relationship with Yvonne. His great love is denied by Yvonne’s wealthy family, and she too ends up breaking his heart over it. All the while though, Isaac remains a bit oblivious to the fact that it is not only his class difference that stands in between him and Yvonne. He is a bit oblivious as well in his own racism against the black people of South Africa, unable to correlate it to the racism directed towards the Jews.

The Lion Seeker builds with prose that is at many times graceful, it compels you to keep turning the pages. Isaac slowly comes to realize his mother’s past, the growing fear of the oncoming war and the treatment of the Jewish people in South Africa. The story quickly glosses over Isaac’s time fighting in WWII but at the end, all of those graceful words explode on the page in a gut-wrenching end:

Jager killed over a hundred thirty-five thousand human beings in a few weeks, without mercy. His men and their helpers, they extinguished the Lithuanian Jews. A thousand years of history, more, gone. Vilna was the Jerusalem of the North. Our yeshivas famous for their genius. What this showed them is that it could be done. That people wanted to help them do it, that this was logistically possible. That nobody cared. It was the first time they started killing children in masses. And women, old people. All the rest of it – the camps, the gas – followed from this, like a fire from spark.” (page 560)

The Lion Seeker was a very good read and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. It did not win the Governor General’s Literary Award, that honour went to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  3.5 stars.

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