It all sounded so glamorous. The Hollywood starlet. Her famous best friends. A dash of her dashing family. They’re the lions of Hollywood, on their way to safari in the Serengeti. On this luxury excursion, there’s even a kerosene-powered ice machine to chill the gin and tonics. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, just about everything.
In Chris Bohjalian’s latest book, “The Lioness,” things are calm for all of a dozen pages before the roar — both human and animal — begins.
But in that calm, the stage is set. It’s 1964 and Katie Barstow is the queen of Hollywood. The daughter of famous New York theater folk with a legacy of alcohol and abuse, she ran to the West Coast for the quiet life. What she found is fame, fortune and good people.
So good that she’s decided to turn her honeymoon adventure into a buddy moon. Katie’s just married David Hill — a struggling gallerist who is also her brother’s best friend from childhood. He was a support during that bleak time and now is not intimidated by his wife’s bank account — or her honeymoon choices. Joining them on safari are seven others — including Terrance Dutton, a Black actor whose star is rising and with whom Katie has shared some steamy big-screen scenes. Terrance is only the third Black guest that the safari team has led, and is as much of a star to the staff in Tanzania as Katie.
They’re all in the care of Charlie Patton, a White hunter who holds fast to his machismo, his handlebar mustache, and the fact that he once had Papa Hemingway as a client. But he’ll put down the guns, realizing that it’s the Hollywood crowd that will fill his pockets now, even if they’re people ready to “photograph elephants, not shoot them. People who might want a zebra rug or a zebra purse but didn’t want to see the damn thing actually killed.”
And so it begins. The travelers are learning from the guides, witnessing the power of wildebeests crossing the Mara River and the beauty of giraffes at a watering hole. But very quickly, the cameras are dropped. White men in a Land Rover appear out of nowhere. There are gunshots, and it’s perfectly clear that they’re not aiming at the giraffes.
The armed men are ruthless Russian mercenaries. In minutes, they brutally kidnap the Americans and their guides, one violently murdered, the rest muscled into trucks with guns to their heads. The mantra for all becomes: “Just stay alive. See if, somehow, we might see the sun rise one more time.”
As the drama plays out, Bohjalian divides the narration between all nine Americans and Benjamin Kikwete, one of the group’s young Kenyan porters. Ten narrators is a bold choice, and readers will need the who’s who list provided, but when you’re writing your 23rd book, shouldn’t your choices be bold? The gaggle of narrators means that no one has enough page time for deep character development, but what’s there is rich enough to be revelatory, is expertly woven into the present, and the short chapters and changing cast are what turns “The Lioness” into a bloody sprint of a read. (The book has already been optioned for a television series.) And make no mistake, there will be blood. As Katie puts it, saying the safari had taken a wrong turn “was like saying Jack Kennedy’s visit to Dallas had had a few hiccups.”
For some, the horror becomes the hunger games. As in, the actual animals are hungry and human flesh will do just fine. For others, driven through the endless plains, then tied up alone, it becomes trying to figure out who the kidnappers are, if they’ll keep them alive for ransom, and of course, why?
Set against the backdrop of the Congo Crisis and the Simba rebellion, while also touching on American racism, especially in Hollywood, there are so many reasons the famous group could have been captured, and the unraveling of it all is captivating. But even more so is how a group of such prominent people react when they’ve landed in hell, and the reason behind their reactions. What did their lives look like before this moment? Are they acting the hero? Or can they not play that card when tragedy is real instead of fictional? In short, would they “rather die charging like a rhino than bleating like a goat,” or will absolute panic set in and the lions be reduced to the kittens of Hollywood?
In his writing, Bohjalian is anything but a kitten. Lesser writers could not tackle 10 narrators, the complexities of racism in America, African politics, violence both foreign and domestic (as in inside a New York apartment) and make the pieces fit seamlessly together. But Bohjalian — whose books include “Hour of the Witch” and “The Flight Attendant” — has shown time and again that with him, you don’t know what you’re going to get, but you know that the getting is good.
With “The Lioness,” the getting is violently good. Pulled in by the promise of thrills or the guarantee of glamour, readers will stay for the game of survivor(s), and finish the book as satisfied as a fat cat in the Serengeti.
Karin Tanabe is the author of five books, including, most recently, “A Woman of Intelligence.”
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday. 336 pp. $28
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