Review published on December 31, 2017.
Described as simple, Con, recently returned to South Africa, has been asked to go to the “lion place” to pick up the belongings of Mark, a friend from his teenage years (twenty years previously), who is in hospital critically ill having been savaged by one of the lions. Con, unemployed and living with Elyse, becomes a volunteer at the failing centre with responsibility for the surviving lion, now an irrelevant part of a specialist breeding programme intended to restore the extinct “black maned lion”.
The novel, through Con’s evolving relationships – and his recurring memories of childhood in the area – explores themes such as the politics of conservation programmes and their funding, animal “groupies” and people’s changing responses to wildlife and its importance, the changing landscape of South Africa, and how the relative poverty and wealth of the various social groups feeds into these issues.
But the key thing that runs throughout, and the tale is told by Con, is Con’s strangely dysfunctional lifestyle since childhood and how it has impacted on his behaviour throughout the novel. It should be said too that the family lifestyle of Mark – seen by Con as “normal” – is, from this reader’s perspective, markedly strange too.
To help you understand, maybe, it should be mentioned that the “green lion” in alchemy is a critical element in the process of turning base metals to gold. Whatever responses there are to the lions here, they are not green. But they certainly create responses in people.
Rose-Innes has taken all these strange themes and perspectives and melded them into an extraordinary novel. A good sense of place and all of the people totally believable, even the ones you might want to avoid in real life! To take the weird and use it to explore a nation and key themes of its development, values and history is ambitious, but undoubtedly successful here.
I would not want you to think that the statements above are criticisms; this is just a somewhat unconventional novel, but still compelling and well worth the read. It should get most book groups onto deep discussions.
Hilary White 5/5
Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes
Aardvark Bureau 9781910709252 pbk Aug 2017
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