Book: The Lion Seeker
Author: Kenneth Bonert
My Rating: 4.5 Stars
Quick review: A fabulous debut novel about Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in South Africa.
The Lion Seeker, at first glance, looks like a very intimidating read. In addition to the 561 pages length, a random page test gives you glimpses of foreign phrases and snippets of a particularly complicated version of English during conversations. But the minute you start reading, Kenneth Bonert ensures from page 1 that you pulled in to the story and transported to South Africa in the early to mid-1900s – during the years of the Great Depression – the period between the world wars.
The prologue begins in Lithuania where a young lady, Gitelle is bidding farewell to her siblings and the rest of her family to take her two children and reunite with her husband, who has moved to South Africa. Gitelle comes to South Africa with her children hoping to start fresh and make it big in the new place. Her husband, Abel, is a watch repairman who is happy and satisfied with what little he has. He has no big ambitions and takes pride in his honest labor. Gitelle realizes that her dreams of achieving big things can only be realized through her son, Isaac. From his childhood, she trains him to think out of the box. She keeps asking him one question – “are you clever, or are you stupid?”.
And by that, she makes him understand that at every point in life he has to stop and think before taking a decision. A clever move will be one where he gets ahead himself. A stupid move would allow others to take advantage of him. Little does she realize that this cut throat attitude that she teaches her son would come and bite her back in the future. We follow Isaac’s life from childhood through adolescence all the way to adulthood in this book against a backdrop of the world war 2.
Gitelle’s struggles to get her family out of Lithuania and in to South Africa are heart wrenching when you realize that her story is not a unique experience. A majority of South Africa’s Jewish population are descendants of Lithuanian immigrants (including Kenneth Bonert himself). Every Lithuanian immigrant who left family behind would have gone through the turmoils of Gitelle.
I could go on and on about the book. I’ve read a lot of books about the Holocaust. But this was the first book where I got to understand the experience of Jews that actually escaped the Holocaust.
The language that is spoken by Isaac is a mix of English with Yiddish, Afrikaans and a heavy South African accent. While this was a little hard to follow at the beginning, it was easy to get used to. And by the end of the book, you realize that it was a big part of what made the book so “un-putdown-able”.
The Lion Seeker is a very well written novel and doesn’t read like a debut novel at all. There are a few places where the book appears to deviate from its tone and become a little melodramatic and the epilogue feels very disjoint from the rest of the book – almost like it was written as a quick after thought. But apart from these very minor points, it was an amazing read.
I highly recommend this book to all those interested in family sagas or Jewish literature. I can’t wait to read more books from Kenneth Bonert.