"Are you a stupid or a clever? "
Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger s mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make.
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"Are you a stupid or a clever? "
Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger s mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mother s question haunts every choice. "Are you a stupid or a clever?" Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburg s poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?
Isaac s mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.
Meanwhile, South Africa s history, bound up with Europe s but inflected with its own accents Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English begins to unravel. Isaac s vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaac s fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mother s secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.
A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, "The Lion Seeker" is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught hearts open and wrecked between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-08-05
- Reviewer: Staff
“A Stupid or a Clever, a lion or a lamb”: this refrain follows Isaac Helger as he comes of age in South Africa in the ’20s and ’30s. Both of Isaac’s immigrant Jewish parents suffered in anti-Semitic Europe, but they’ve learned opposite lessons from their respective ordeals. His iron-willed, mysteriously scarred mother teaches him to put himself first, to take rather than give—because if given the chance, anyone else would do the same. But his father favors a life of peaceful labor, preferring happiness to materialism. Which legacy will Isaac choose as he tries to strike it rich, woo an upper-class “goy” girl, and retaliate against anti-Semites? Bonert’s minorities are not blameless victims: unable to see the similarity between the persecution of Jews and blacks, Isaac is a bigot, too. When Hitler’s onslaught begins, endangering the Helgers’ Lithuanian relatives, Isaac must decide which comes first: his own dreams or the lives of others. His is a story of fighting and deciding what’s worth fighting for, of cultivating a strength that doesn’t erase empathy. Bonert’s debut is lengthy, but the pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film. Agent: Don Fehr, Trident. (Oct.)