The Lion Seeker

The Lion Seeker

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“A taut, visceral account of a young Jewish boy’s African life . . . offering at times page-turning thrills and at others a painful meditation on destiny and volition.” — NPR, All Things Considered

A powerful family saga, The Lion Seeker is a thrilling ride through the life of Isaac Helger, from redheaded hooligan on the streets of Johannesburg to striving young man on the make. Growing up in the shadow of World War II, Isaac is caught between his mother’s urgent ambition to bring her sisters to safety out of the old world and his own desire for the freedoms of the new. But soon his mother’s carefully guarded secret takes them to the diamond mines, where mysteries are unveiled in the desert rocks and Isaac begins to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.

“[A] master storyteller . . . Bonert’s zest for description, his attention to social nuances, and his eagerness to tell a large story in a large way . . . [creates] a big, richly detailed novel.” — Tablet Magazine

“Raw and ambitious.” — Moment

“Astonishingly mature, admirably incautious . . . It’s visually and thematically sweeping, rich with diverse personalities, packed with tender waves and roiling crests of love, loss, hope, hatred.” — National Post (Canada)

“Stunning.” — Jewish Daily Forward

“Powerful and thoroughly engrossing . . . To read it is to be reminded how great a great novel can be.” — David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547898414

  • ISBN-10: 054789841X

  • Pages: 576

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 10/15/2013

  • Carton Quantity: 1


Kenneth Bonert

KENNETH BONERT's first novel, The Lion Seeker, won the National Jewish Book Award, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the Canadian Jewish Book Award. Bonert was also a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award. He was born in South Africa and now lives in Toronto, Ontario. 
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  • reviews

    "A taut, visceral account of a young Jewish boy's African life… offering at times page-turning thrills and at others a painful meditation on destiny and volition."

    —NPR, All Things Considered

    "[A] master storyteller... Bonert's zest for description, his attention to social nuances, and his eagerness to tell a large story in a large way... [creates] a big, richly detailed novel."

    Tablet Magazine

    "[A] suspenseful, entertaining, and thought provoking epic. . . Recommended to Jewish and philo-Semitic readers who enjoy family sagas, coming of age tales, long epic novels, and learning about a Jewish community with whom they might not be well acquainted."

    New York Journal of Books

    "Simply a stunning piece of work. . . If The Lion Seeker wasn't the best Jewish novel I'd read in 2013, it was damn close."

    Jewish Daily Forward

    "What a rare and splendid achievement this novel is—emotionally gripping, intellectually challenging, deftly plotted, skillfully composed, and vibrantly alive with the images and sounds and textures and human flurry of another time and place. I was dazzled. And I was moved."

    —Tim O’Brien

    "[Isaac's] is a story of fighting and deciding what's worth fighting for, of cultivating a strength that doesn't erase empathy. . . The pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film."

    Publishers Weekly

    "[The Lion Seeker] will grab readers everywhere with the story of the struggling refugees in a new country, the horror they escaped from, and the guilt about those left behind, with secrets not revealed until the very end. . . The immigrant family struggle comes across as universal, whether concerning radicals or the ultra-Orthodox. . . A great choice for book-group discussion."


    "South African-born Canadian writer Bonert serves up a latter-day Exodus in this debut novel."

    Kirkus Reviews

    "Raw and ambitious. . . The compulsive energy and passion of [Bonert's] prose is well matched to the feverish longings of his deeply flawed protagonist, and the book gains speed and urgency as it steams along."

    Moment Magazine

    "Here is the South African novel I've been waiting for. Kenneth Bonert tells it true, not safe. His protagonist is worthy of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the South Africa he gives us vivid, raw, dangerous, shot through with moral complexity."

    —Lynn Freed, author of House of Women and The Servants' Quarters

    "The Lion Seeker is a powerful and thoroughly engrossing novel, grand in scope, richly imagined, full of dramatic incident, and crafted in a prose that is by turns roughhewn and lyrical. To read it is to be reminded how great a great novel can be."

    —David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World and Natasha: And Other Stories

    "A remarkably assured debut, The Lion Seeker is a riveting, lyrical, and profound journey towards the intersection of private lives and public destinies. Kenneth Bonert has all the makings of a major novelist."

    —Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times

    "The Lion Seeker is no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle-fight raw. A historical novel that feels desperately current; a Rosenburg and Juliet love story shorn of all sentiment; a stock-taking of human brutality and its flip side, our capacity to reach beyond our limitations and be better, all rendered in prose so expert, so fine honed that it belies the adjective ‘debut.’ It joins classics like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart in the canon, and renders the South African experience universal. A first-round knock-out for Kenneth Bonert."

    —Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa

    "This powerful novel begins with a mystery that propels its characters through their difficult lives in prewar South Africa and haunts their actions until a dramatic and searing climax based on the Holocaust in Lithuania. The Lion Seeker is vivid and illuminating, astonishing in its range and toughness, and simultaneously an expression of love and regret for all that has been lost."

    —Antanas Sileika, author of Underground and Woman in Bronze and Director of the Humber School for Writers

    Praise from abroad for The Lion Seeker:

    "An emotional tour de force that plumbs the depths of human hope, fear, guilt, and rage, and bears all the hallmarks of a masterwork."

    Ballast (Canada)

    "A titanic novel. . . An epic, a vast story about a rarefied subject: the community of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated to South Africa before World War II. . . Mazel tov, Kenneth Bonert, you have written a blockbuster of a book."

    Toronto Star (Canada)

    "Bonert's prose is sharp and masterful, clipping along at a breathless pace while still managing to wow us with imagery, clever turns of phrase and believable dialogue peppered with several languages."

    Globe and Mail (Canada)

    "The Lion Seeker is astonishingly mature, admirably incautious. It moves with the sleight-of-hand of the born artist, ramping up for naked tugs at the heart. . . It's visually and thematically sweeping, rich with diverse personalities, packed with tender waves and roiling crests of love, loss, hope, hatred. It casts its bit players (even a final-act dog) as deftly as its stars. . . This novel, quite apart from what it might become, remains completely and thrillingly itself."

    National Post (Canada)

    "If not for the setting-South Africa in the 1930s and '40s-the novel's hapless protagonist could have been plucked from the doom-laden pages of Thomas Hardy. . . The Lion Seeker, like its 19th-century literary forebears, is larded with enough plot twists, reversals of fortune, and revelations of family secrets to keep many readers engrossed."

    Quill & Quire (Canada)

  • excerpts

    Gitelle: A Prologue


    Whatever crouched beyond the lakes and forests of her green life was unseeable as night. She had never studied a map till it came time to leave forever and then her fingertips traced ceaselessly over what her mind could not picture. The mysteries beat in her like a second heart. The pinprick of her village lay closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia than she’d ever known; the whole country was but a slither in a howling world. There were salt oceans, desert kingdoms. She had the words and the colours on the map but nothing more.

       When they stopped at the cemetery on the way out, the carriage driver Nachman said, —A tayter nemt mir nit tsoorik foon besaylem. Dead ones never come back from the grave. The old saying meant what’s done is done but was turned upside down in his wry mouth: here it was the living who would never come back to these graves at the far end of Milner Gass, near the spring and Yoffe’s mill, flashes of the lake silver through the dark trees.

       A closed sky kept spitting and everyone wore galoshes against the mud. The peeling birches creaked and dripped; candle flames twitched and fluttered. Her daughter, good girl, stood nicely beside her but Isaac on the other side kept squirming against her right hand bunched in his little jacket. This was a boy who hadn’t stopped jerking and kicking from the second he came out of her with thick hair gleaming like fresh-skinned carrots and his biting mouth screaming enough for twins. Almost five now, about to travel across the earth to meet the father he’d never seen.

       Gitelle made them look at and put pebbles on the gravestones of their grandmother and then all their great-grandparents. That was enough: another five centuries or more of buried Jewish bones spread away from them beneath the hissing branches. She adjusted her veil and turned back to face the living – her tutte Zalman Moskevitch, her sisters, the nieces and the husbands. Isaac wriggled free like a cat and ran off. She didn’t bother shouting: the boy needed a leash not more words, hoarse or otherwise. Some of his aunties caught him. Another two of them came up to her. Trudel-Sora hoisted Rively onto her hip and went away while Orli held out her arms. Youngest of the sisters, Orli was plump in the lips and hips and smoothly olive skinned; her black eyes, now liquidly gleaming, matched her thick long hair. She hugged Gitelle close, groaning, and said, I think you’re the first one ever who didn’t need a hanky on her leaving day.

       Are you surprised?

       Of course not.

       Gitelle nodded. How strange tears would be today, after everything. All the years spent gagging on the taste of her breath against the shame of the veil, her words dribbling from her like spatter from an overbubbling pot – such sorrows, encompassed by this place, should not include her leaving too. Never that.

       What are you thinking of?

       The future, said Gitelle. The living. My husband. What else is there to think of?

       Orli smiled: her teeth unpeeled were white as river stones and brilliant in her olive face. Sister, not everyone’s as strong as a tree stump.

       Is that what I’m supposed to be now?

       It’s what you always have.

       She had threaded her warm soft arm through Gitelle’s and pulled it close as they walked back though the gravestones. A sodden squirrel stood up to stare at them, quivering. Gitelle said: Listen. If I can do this so can you. Don’t waste time. Be brave. Don’t ever stop trying. I was twenty-seven before I met my Abel. They said with the way I am such a thing could never happen. And after we had Rively, you think he wanted to go? Men are lazy as stones. I had to nag so much I nearly twisted my own head into craziness – borrow the money, get moving, wake up. And how many years now it’s taken him, drip drip drip, to send back just enough for our tickets . . . But see, here I am, I don’t complain. Today it’s my turn, my leaving day. You understand what I’m telling you, Orli? Remember this day. Don’t ever give in. Don’t ever go slack. Your leaving day will come sooner than you think. All of yours will. It’s the only way we’ll ever see each other again, and we will. We have to.

       Orli was drying her cheeks with her free hand. But it was always fated, she said. You and Abel. Like everything.

       Gitelle snorted, rippling the line of the veil.

       What? There is fate. You two prove it.

       Prove what exactly?

       How The Name makes His perfect matches for us, in every generation of souls. A heart for a heart, even a wound for a wound. Every shoe must have its foot.

       Gitelle was silent, felt her sister’s eyes on her face.

       Forgive me, said Orli. Foot and shoe. I didn’t mean—

       Ah Orli, said Gitelle, lisping into the cloth. You think that’s what bothers me? My dear sister, you need to forget all that romantic trash if you’re ever going to grow up. Now’s the time to start.

       Outside the cemetery the horse cropped at wet weeds with a stretched neck; Nachman had his collar up and his chin on his chest. There was a wait to find Isaac who’d gotten loose again and was giggling somewhere off in the lindens on the opposite side. First would come the station at Obeliai, then a train to Libau on the coast. She had packed goose feather pillows for the freighter’s hard benches and plenty of lemons because lemons are the cure for seasickness: advice from the ones who’d gone before. Africa. She wondered what an ocean will be.


    In Southampton on England’s coast they boarded a Union Castle liner with a lavender hull and two fat smokestacks. It took twenty days to reach the bottom tip of the pistol-shaped African continent and on every one of them Isaac found ways to raid the upper decks of first class, returning to steerage with pockets stuffed with glazed tarts and fresh cheeses and Swiss chocolate, with strange and impossibly sweet fruits Gitelle had never seen before. When he wasn’t raiding he fought other boys or kicked the shins of the duty officers. His masterpiece was starting a fire in a life raft with a flare gun. The crew called him Devil Boy and the captain almost had him confined. They didn’t understand it was only that he was born with a little more kaych in him than others, a little extra life energy bubbling and frothing inside like hot milk to get out. When she wiped his face in bed every night with a damp cloth she got him to keep still by promising him the freckles were coming off, and every morning he’d run excited to the mirror to verify her claims.

       Cape Town was on a bay raked by salt winds, its streets laced over the roots of a flathead mountain. Colours burned the air: blood flowers, thorny eruptions of vermilion, limeyellow smears on the rocks like veins of fresh paint. The red sun had sandpaper beams. She saw human beings burned the colour of coal or darkbrewed tea or cured leather; she smelled their alien sweat and their tangy cooking, heard the mad bibbering of their manifold tongues. A strange music that made her heart sag in the fear of this shattering place. But later she saw pretty whitewashed houses in a row near the waterfront, with palm trees in tranquil garden squares, and she dared hope that Abel had secured them similar lodgings.

       Johannesburg was two ho...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780547898414

  • ISBN-10: 054789841X

  • Pages: 576

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 10/15/2013

  • Carton Quantity: 1

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