— The Lioness, by Chris Bohjalian, Doubleday (2022)
When I picked up The Lioness, the latest from author Chris Bohjalian, I thought it would be a well-written beach-read-style page-turner. Bohjalian has written twenty-three books, some of which have been adapted for the stage and screen. I have read and loved several, all of which have addressed complicated historical and moral dilemmas through the lens of particular characters. But the description of this novel seemed different — “a luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood star and her entourage” when they are kidnapped by Russian mercenaries. The combination of 1960s Hollywood and the hot Serengeti settings made me think this novel would be a thriller above all, more fun perhaps than Bohjalian’s past works. But while this book makes for compulsive reading, be forewarned that it does not shy away from extraordinary acts of violence, brutal mistakes, and their rippling consequences.
Although most of the novel takes place over the course of only two days, Bohjalian is adept at shifting between past and present from the viewpoints of several characters. The story is told from the perspective of ten different captives, ranging from Hollywood actresses to safari guides. Not only did I never feel confused by this, but I was impressed by Bohjalian’s ability to develop the backstory and moral foibles of each separate individual so that each was truly compelling.
This approach is extremely effective, giving readers an in-depth look at how different people handle mortal fear and blatant injustice, and how their own personal histories may contribute to their choices. In the beginning, each chapter is a window into a character’s mind as they ride in the Land Rover, unsure of what is happening to them or why. They reckon with their own insecurities, weaknesses, and resentments as they try to decide what to do. Stay quiet and avoid causing trouble? Escape? Fight back?
Sometimes, it is the contrast between their thought processes that is the most compelling, forcing readers to evaluate what we think we know about love and relationships. That is because these characters never make their assessments in a vacuum, but in consideration of those they love — and also those they hate.
Even more unsettlingly, the novel forces us to ask ourselves what we would do in a similar situation and to reflect on whether we like the answers. Where do our sympathies lie? With the one who tried to strangle one of the kidnappers so someone else could grab his gun? Or with the one who plots to stay silent in the hope of getting himself and his loved ones through unscathed?
Ultimately, our shared humanity is why we can’t fully write any of these characters off, no matter what we think of their choices. As the unnamed narrator in the novel’s prologue observes, “I can’t speak for the dead. And I won’t speak for the missing. I can only tell you what I think happened. Others — the dead and the missing — would probably have their own versions. Blame, I can tell you, is every bit as subjective as the truth.”
Above all, this novel is a mystery that will keep you turning the pages to find out why this motley Hollywood crew has been kidnapped in such a professional fashion, and the twists and turns are just as riveting as those in any popular thriller. Bohjalian also gives us insight into not only the pressures of fame, family, and identity in old Hollywood, but the history of African post-independence power struggles (particularly the Simba rebellion in eastern Congo) and the Cold War in general. His extensive research is written into the storyline with a light hand, although I did find myself occasionally looking up certain events for more context. And of course, the book is laced with interesting facts and beautiful descriptions of east African wildlife — one more reason to read this book this summer, even if there are no beaches.
Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson