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!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • 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.