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.