Title: The Lioness
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
A luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood starlet and her entourage in this riveting historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant
Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebra storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film “Tender Madness”—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: Fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.
What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: A kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding them into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: To see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.
Chris Bohjalian proves once again that he can tell a story with any subject, in any genre, and make it unputdownable. The only reason I didn’t read The Lioness straight through was the pesky issue of needing to sleep. (And even once I stopped for the night, did I dream about kidnappings and safaris? You bet I did.)
From his devastating, engrossing novel about a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in 1660s Boston (The Hour of the Witch), the author shifts tone and subject matter completely with The Lioness, bringing us a tale of Hollywood glamor, deadly Cold War proxy wars, and the terror of being utterly defenseless in a place that has far too many ways to kill a human.
Katie Barstow is the biggest movie star of 1964 when, at age 30, she marries art gallery owner David Hill, then brings their closest friends and family with them on a luxury African safari. Led by renowned “great white hunter” Charlie Patton, they’ll travel through the Serengeti viewing wildlife and taking photographs, “roughing it” with canvas bathtubs filled by porters and living in tents, while protected by rangers and having their every need catered to. For Katie, a warm-hearted friend and sister who truly cares about the people with her, it’s the adventure and experience of a lifetime.
But within a few days, things go very, very wrong. The expedition’s camp is attacked by armed men — white men with Russian accents and over-the-top firepower — who kill several of the group’s guides ruthlessly before taking the Americans hostage. As the group is divided in two, they’re left at the mercy of their kidnappers, who don’t hesitate to use violence. The deeper they’re taken into the Serengeti, the worse their odds of survival look: Even if they do manage to escape their captors, then what? Unarmed, without provisions, alone in the wild, how long could they survive the leopards, hyenas, and other predatory animals who stalk their every movement?
In chapters that shift perspective amongst the nine members of Katie’s entourage, we follow the events of the kidnapping as they unfold, but also see each character’s thoughts and memories of their lives before the trip and the events leading up to this point. We come to understand their inner lives, their early struggles, and the individualized fears they carry with them into this moment of extreme crisis.
I won’t say too much more about the plot. It’s complex and includes twists and red herrings, but we’re always fully present in the moment with the characters. We experience the terror of these events alongside the characters, never knowing from moment to moment what might be happening to the others, what the kidnappers’ plans are, or whether what’s coming might be even worse than what’s happening at that very moment. The characters must react and choose what to do based on very limited information, always weighing the odds of survival — is it better to attack their kidnappers, or to wait and hope for rescue or ransom? Which way offers the best chance of living for one more hour, one more day?
I did find myself lacking some key information about the state of affairs in East Africa in the mid-1960s, and relied on many quick Wikipedia searches to shore up my historical knowledge enough to get better context for the plot developments. The plot is so character-driven that the historical details are really more background than essential, but it helped me a lot to have quick access to the information I needed, and helped round out the stakes, the players, and the settings of the Cold War machinations that drive the story from behind the scenes.
The Lioness is a totally engrossing read, I was low-key anxious and/or terrified throughout my reading experience. We know right from the prologue that most of the characters will not survive — but it’s not clear who survives or how events wind up until the very end. Meanwhile, we get to know each of them as individuals, and while not all are people I’d want to actually hang out with, it’s still tragic and terrible to see how, one by one, those who die meet their ends.
I rarely give 5-star ratings — I think of 5-star books as being those where I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that in mind, I couldn’t give The Lioness any less than 5 stars. I was immediately captivated, and then couldn’t look away. My emotions and my brain were engaged right from the start.
This isn’t an easy read — the subject matter is very tough to take — but the book itself is impossible to put down once you start. I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s books, and The Lioness doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. (In fact, despite having an e-ARC, I think I’m going to need a hard copy for my shelves as well).
Don’t miss The Lioness. I have a feeling it’s destined to end up on many of the “best of” lists for 2022.