Kenneth Bonert’s ambitious debut novel arrives as this year’s only addition to Random House of Canada’s New Face of Fiction series, following a long list of career-launching titles that includes Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees, Ami McKay’s The Birth House, and Yann Martel’s Self. In Bonert’s case, the face might be new, but the author’s almost Victorian approach to storytelling is familiar. If not for the setting – South Africa in the 1930s and ’40s – the novel’s hapless protagonist could have been plucked from the doom-laden pages of Thomas Hardy.
The Lion Seeker focuses on the ill-fated coming of age of Isaac Helger, a scheming high school dropout striving to make a success of himself in the inner-city Johannesburg neighbourhood of Doornfontein. Isaac is driven by the desire to purchase a proper home for his uncompromising, hardened mother, Gitelle, whose face was scarred during an anti-Semitic pogrom in the family’s native Lithuania. In the manner of Hardy’s Jude Fawley, Isaac is beset by one setback after another, although never to the point that the possibility of redemption is permanently barred.
Bonert makes the most of an interesting historical backdrop, particularly the lead-up to the Second World War. Gitelle frets about the fate of relatives left behind in an increasingly perilous Eastern Europe, and Isaac has reason to fear the emergence of South African Nazi sympathizers, including an oafish neighbour determined to make Isaac’s life a misery. Isaac’s persecution, however, doesn’t dissuade him from displaying similarly racist attitudes toward the downtrodden blacks in his own midst.
The Lion Seeker, like its 19th-century literary forebears, is larded with enough plot twists, reversals of fortune, and revelations of family secrets to keep many readers engrossed for almost 600 pages. There’s no small measure of melodrama along the way, but that also goes with the territory.