The Lioness

Written by Chris Bohjalian
Review by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

1964. Hollywood movie star and American sweetheart Katie Barstow decides to take a small group of friends and family with her and her new husband on an African safari. The guests number twelve, plus their hired guide and a large crew of African helpers. After a few amazing days of sightseeing and photo-taking, disaster strikes. Heavily armed men with Russian accents kidnap the group, placing the Americans into two vehicles that drive in different directions, and making the native Africans climb into a large truck which heads toward a possible forced-labor mining camp. A prologue makes clear that not many of the Americans get out alive.

The group is large, so I worried about keeping track of who each character was, but this story is skillfully and creatively organized. Each chapter is in third person from the perspective of one of the kidnapped characters. The thrilling tale of what is happening after being kidnapped by Russian agents in the dangerous Serengeti is paired with the characters’ reminiscences of their childhoods, their past glories and agonies, how they met their friends, what their dreams are, and more. The character development is excellent, and the plot gripping. Bohjalian’s descriptions of the Serengeti’s animals and dangers are captivating. The glimpses of 1960s La-la land are a remarkable contrast to the 1960s East African political upheavals. Highly recommended.