Kenneth Bonert’s ‘Lion Seeker’ Is Best New Novel You Haven’t Read

South African Epic Tells Tale of Jewish Johannesburg

Literary Lion: Bonert’s novel won the 2013 Jewish Book Award for best debut novel and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.
Martyna Starosta
Literary Lion: Bonert’s novel won the 2013 Jewish Book Award for best debut novel and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.

By Adam Langer

Published February 21, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I first heard of Kenneth Bonert’s “The Lion Seeker” maybe a year ago when I was having lunch with Harcourt Houghton Mifflin executive director of publicity Lori Glazer at some hoity-toity place in Union Square whose name I forget. Yes, this is a boring way to start a story, but bear with me because there’s a point to it — one about how books get promoted, published, and written about. Or not, as the case may be. Glazer, who once years ago unsuccessfully tried to help me get Philip Roth to blurb one of my novels, told me that “The Lion Seeker” — a 576-page epic set in South Africa between the first and second world wars — was my kind of book and that I would “fall in love with it.”

But to be totally honest here, “fall in love with” is a phrase editors hear every day from book publicists. And besides, Glazer had brought along a stack of promising-looking books including Jessica Soffer’s “Tomorrow, There Will Be Apricots” and A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Retrospective,” and I was most interested in trying to arrange an interview with Yehoshua and to press Glazer for gossip about Philip Roth (no luck there).

The rest of the titles she mentioned sort of flew by me. I’d never heard of Bonert — he was a South African-born, Toronto-based debut novelist and his book’s length and its cover (a light-blue lion against a dark blue, star-filled sky) suggested a sweeping historical and not-particularly-literary saga. Do editors make decisions based on their opinions of book covers? Uh, we try not to. Either way, I was skeptical.

Nevertheless, I did trust Glazer’s word. And I trusted the work of the novel’s editor, Jenna Johnson, who has edited, among other books, Tony D’Souza’s “Mule,” a tremendously underrated novel of drug-running and downward social mobility in the early 21st century. So, when I got back to my office, I cracked open “The Lion Seeker.” It didn’t hit me at first. It seemed dense, full of South African dialect; plus the office was loud that day, and I had trouble focusing. I tried again the next day, got distracted, put it down and resolved to find a reviewer for it.

Finding the right critic for a book is more art than science — it has a lot in common with playing matchmaker. I lined up a couple of writers who, I thought, would be interested in the book. One just sort of weighed the book in her hands, smirked, then put it down. Another writer grumbled, “Great, just what we need — another bildungsroman.” A third made a disparaging comparison to Australian novelist Colleen McCullough’s “The Thorn Birds.”

Only one choice remained — to try to read the book myself and give it a fair chance. Sometimes, you have to be in the right mood for a book. It took me at least five tries to realize that Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse” was one of the best books ever written. I gave up on William Faulkner in a high school English class and didn’t rediscover “Light in August” for a decade. With “The Lion Seeker,” it was much easier — it captivated me on the third try. Truly. I read it in the space of a week during my morning and evening rides on the subway and was taken by its breadth of detail, the richness of its language.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.