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Bohjalian’s ‘The Lioness’ offers rip-roaring historical fiction

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Chris Bohjalian can write just about anything.

There are relatively few writers in the realm of popular fiction who possess the range that Bohjalian has brought to his oeuvre over the past few decades. His depth of research results in books that, no matter their subject, make for compelling and propulsive reads.

His latest is “The Lioness” (Doubleday, $28), a midcentury story revolving around a Hollywood movie star who embarks on an African safari for her honeymoon, bringing friends and professional associates along for the ride. However, when the adventure takes a deadly turn, the group is left facing dangers both animal and human … and not everyone will escape with their life.

Told via a constantly shifting perspective, with each chapter moving to the point of view of a different character, “The Lioness” uses the vagaries of Hollywood culture and the brutal beauty of the Serengeti to explore the meaning of perception – how we are viewed by others and, crucially, how we view ourselves.

The year is 1964. Hollywood star Katie Barstow has just married David Hill, a gallery owner and childhood friend. To celebrate their union, Katie wants to honeymoon by going on safari in Africa. In addition, she wants to bring along a collection of the important people in her life.

It’s Katie and David, of course, as well as Katie’s brother Billy and his wife. Also along for the ride are Katie’s best friend and fellow actress Carmen Tedesco and Katie’s controversial co-star Terrence Dutton. In the mix are Katie’s agent and publicist and a few others as well, all led by a legendary hunter and his team of native assistants.

What begins as a grand adventure, a “photo safari” wherein the only shooting is done by cameras, quickly turns terrifying when a group of mysterious armed mercenaries kidnaps the entire entourage. As these new players demonstrate their ruthlessness and willingness to commit violence, the group is fractured, with each individual forced to confront not just the events of the present, but the whispers of the past that echo in their psyches throughout.

As more and more members of the group fall victim, whether to the guns of their kidnappers or the teeth and claws of the deadly inhabitants of the Serengeti, questions continue to swirl. Who are their captors? What do they want? And what – if anything – can Katie and her friends do to ensure their own survival?

Each chapter offers the perspective of an individual involved in these events, combining their experiences in the moment with instances in their pasts that inform the ways in which they’re dealing with their brutal and frightening circumstances. And as these different perspectives are stitched together, a greater picture begins to come into focus – a picture that illustrates just how difficult it is for any of these people to truly understand those closest to them, even as the specter of death looms ever larger.

“The Lioness” offers typically great storytelling from Bohjalian, a rich and intertwined narrative that advances with twisting inevitability even as the wide cast of characters is rendered with a fullness of dimension that would be difficult even with a much smaller list of dramatis personae. That depth of characterization serves to invest us in the people involved, which in turn deepens our investment in the story itself.

The author’s commitment to research is readily evident, both in terms of the picture painted of the African experience and that of the Hollywood machine. There’s an immersiveness to Bohjalian’s work that is only possible because of the incredible work that has gone into ensuring the verisimilitude of both setting and social dynamics.

Among the many methods in which Bohjalian aspires to crafting a complete world is his use of fictionalized press clippings to open each chapter. Through these manufactured items pulled from Hollywood gossip rags, we’re given yet another perspective regarding the people with whom we’re traveling. It’s a deft, smart choice – one that accomplishes a lot of heavy lifting in relatively little space.

And of course, it is an adventure story, one whose influences – Hemingway, Christie – are apparent, even as the tale manages to avoid any whiff of the derivative. It is action-packed while also being very human, a juggling act that only a gifted writer can effectively navigate.

Good thing Bohjalian’s pretty damned gifted.

This is one of those books that invites that “just one more chapter” feeling – if you’re a big reader, you know what I’m talking about. And with the Rashomon-adjacent perspective shifts only compound that feeling; each turn offers more information even as it reveals another layer to the mystery, leaving the reader craving more.

“The Lioness” is another exciting work from the pen of an exceptional writer. It is a transportive book, one that puts us in the heads of a group of flawed individuals even as it lays out the lush and deadly beauty of the African savannah. Meticulously researched and constructed, it is a first-rate novel from one of the best writers of popular fiction currently writing.

In short, “The Lioness” roars.

Last modified on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 11:58

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