I could say that The Lion Seeker is a coming of age story, but that would be putting it too neatly. Isaac Helger gets knocked down more times than he is put forward. His is a journey filled with tremendous heart and ambition but also a lot of grit and sweat and discrimination. This isn’t a flowery book about one man’s success in spite of bitter circumstances. It is a realistic book, unafraid to tell it like it is, even when scenes are taunt and tense and heartbreaking. Life is messy, Bonnert says through Helger. Life is unfair and unexpected and sometimes cruel but still we must go on, still we must persevere.
Isaac Helger does, even when there are so many elements conspiring against him. Maybe it is built into his personality, this incorrigible will. He’s always had a restless energy, a boundless zeal, a desire to please his mother. This combination of pluckiness and sentimentality is what makes him such a joy to follow in his many misadventures. He is a mama’s boy who is undeterred in pursuit of his goal: earning enough money to build his immigrant mother a home – and how many of those do you find in literature?
Bonnert’s accomplishment in this debut novel, though, goes well beyond creating a likable character (likable, mind you, in spite of doing despicable things.) Bonnert’s accomplishment has to do with his own fearlessness – with his readiness to be inventive for the sake of authenticity. The Lion Seeker is told in many dialects – Afrikaan, Zulu, Yiddish, Hebrew, English. And yet, in spite of this mishmash of languages, the book is readable. It is readable because Bonnert does something ingenious. He writes in English next to or just below the foreign text so that immediately after reading it you know what’s been said and don’t feel lost. It’s as if he is translating for you, never once letting his assistance drop away and losing the reader as conversant. Steadily, he builds trust this way, so that the reader not only accepts his arrangement but delights in it – in just how much flavor is lent to the narrative when words are said in their native tongue. Normally, I don’t read books written in dialect – Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston – can’t do it. But with The Lion Seeker, not only do I say do it, I say do it and applaud this experimental tactic!
Bonnert also does a good job of placing his book into its historical and political context. The Lion Seeker is set amidst the South African apartheid and the Lithuanian Holocaust. The Native Problem, The Jewish Question – they feel like one and the same in Bonnert’s hands as we are asked to consider just why we draw the lines we do against the “other.” The suffering of blacks within the white/black divide is shown subtly while the worry over those in Holocaust territory is felt acutely and with great urgency. Subtly or palpably, Bonnert has his own final question: Are we going to turn away from or engage in the face of suffering?
The Lion Seeker is poignant, it is dramatic and in places it is “hold the book close to your face as your mouth hangs open” tense. You will feel so many things as you are reading it but above all I think you will feel grateful for home – for the traditions, languages and people who define you. With The Lion Seeker, Bonnert has paid homage to his South African roots, Jewish faith and immigrant ancestry but he has also given us a great gift: that of utter and complete familiarity. Because regardless of who we are and where we come from each of us has our own coming of age stories. Each of us has our own tragedies and struggles. And still each of us, every day, perseveres.
Thanks to an extra copy sent by the publisher, I will be giving away *two* copies of The Lion Seeker. One will commence right now and the other will occur during the November Literary Blog Hop. Enter by commenting below and don’t forget to include your e-mail address! Giveaway ends Thursday 10/24!
Many thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for my advance reader’s copy!