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? Isaac's mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are. Meanwhile, South Africa's history, bound up with Europe's but inflected with its own accents--Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English--begins to unravel. Isaac's vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaac's fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mother's secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost. 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.
“Very simple, he says. Always get your percent. Make sure and get your percent. On everything. Always.”
There are many books out there about the Jews and World War II but The Lion Seeker comes from the unique angle of the Jews in South Africa. Bonert masters the patois of this community, using a blend of Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu and English that brings to life the diversity of these people and their deep desire to fit into their surroundings. At the same time, Bonert creates in Isaac a character that never fits in, who rebels and pushes against societal norms in his personal and professional life. He falls in love with a golden blonde goddess named Yvonne, the wealthy daughter of clients and does not seem to understand that she is using him until it is too late. The only constant in Isaac’s life is his all-consuming desire to give his mother the life he feels she deserves but for this deeply flawed man even that becomes negotiable. As the war draws closer, he is forced to make a decision about his future and the future of his mother’s family who are trapped in Lithuania.
The Lion Seeker explores moral themes on the large scale of humanity and the more intimate level of one man’s nature. Bonert succeeds at creating larger-than-life characters and stories that lure the reader through the novel but with so many it is difficult to develop them all. This is not enough to detract from the novel’s storytelling value but may mean that despite being over 570 pages some readers are left wanting more.
Kenneth Bonert’s debut is fresh, exciting, and confident. The mother figure, Gitelle is fierce with love for her children juxtaposed against the fierce disfiguring facial scar that drives the plot's backstory. Her son Isaac, with hair
Bonert fleshes out his story in rolling scenes, dialect, and sharp prose. With its sweeping scenes I could see this book easily being adapted for the big screen.
My only complaint is that I felt the book to be a bit long and that Bonert was trying to hard to prove himself. The writing speaks for itself - Bonert has arrived.