“I’d rather die charging like a rhino than bleating like a goat.”

Books on Tap met on Thursday, January 5 to discuss The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian. Many of our members are familiar with Bohjalian, who has published 20 novels in the last 30+ years, and most of the group enjoys his literary and historical fiction writing. This book is set in 1964, but does not feel like historical fiction – the history, the time, is not key to the narrative. Instead, this book veered into territory described by one reader as “sheer entertainment.” And not in a good way. 

What do we mean by “sheer entertainment”? This book has a lot of large, showy elements: Hollywood glamor, exotic African safari, big game, a botched kidnapping, spies, Russian mercenaries, and grizzly, brutal death scenes. 

For many, the book succeeded in sustaining interest: it was a book written to be made into a movie after all. But many readers felt like the violence was a crutch, so, instead of going into deep places of possibilities… boom, blow off your head, you’re dead. It almost made the story feel lame. Was Chris Bohjalian throwing in the towel, writing a book with nothing to talk about, and instead of writing plot, writing violence without meaning or organization?

Did the characters matter? While we all agreed that the historical information was on the lighter side, some readers found that there was good character development — unlike some historical fiction that feels like a Wikipedia article. Others felt that the characters were not developed at all. This book contained a character list at the front of the book, and our group was in agreement that flipping back to the list was often necessary. This is a bad sign, in our experience. If we have to keep flipping back, the author has not successfully, deeply, pulled us into the character. A list of characters is not character development. Some readers said that the only reason they could finish was because they didn’t care about any of the characters. If they had cared at all, the book would have become too painful. Makes sense, given that most of the characters died.

We know right from the start that almost everyone is going to die. It’s just a matter of how, when, and why. The story, then, quickly becomes a story of violence. This quote: “Live long. But die fast.” sums it up. All of the characters hope to live as long as they can, but it quickly becomes clear that their last hope is to die with dignity and compassion. The work of the book, in terms of exploring the human experience, is the search for what people are really made of in the face of unbelievable adversity.

There’s also a generous way to read this book that makes Bohjalian a slick mastermind. Perhaps he very intentionally made the entire story glam, over-the-top, and even shallow, because that is what Hollywood is, and it wouldn’t be a real Hollywood story if it wasn’t all of those things. The book is set in Africa, but isn’t it a Hollywood story? Something to consider.

One of the most fun parts about discussing a book that is generally disliked is considering what would have made the book more enjoyable. Readers talked about wanting more descriptions, details, and textures of everyday life. We wanted more heart and soul. There was so much more to know and to see in this world, Tanzania 1964. In addition, the dichotomy of glamor and grime is set up perfectly, but could’ve been explored more deeply; there is great setup for dramatic tension. Bohjalian has proved himself to be a capable writer, so we hold out hope for his next release. 

Other titles: 

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons At the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Nine Lives by Peter Swanson

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Upcoming titles:

February 2: Octavia Butler – The Parable of the Sower

March 2:  Same Page Community Read: Ross Gay – The Book of Delights

April 6: Will Harlan – Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight For Cumberland Island

May 4: Shelby Van Pelt – Remarkably Bright Creatures: A Novel

For more information about joining Books on Tap, email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org.

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