Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: October 15th 2013
The son of Lithuanian Jews who left the country in the 1920s and moved to South Africa, Isaac Helger grows up believing the only way to have self-worth is through money. “Working” for a living, as his watch repairman father does, is embarrassing. As the protagonist in Kenneth Bonert’s novel, The Lion Seeker, Isaac embraces his mother’s credo of “Are you a stupid or a clever?” by dropping out of school and getting a job, but always with an angle and always looking up. A good job with a moving company is not enough; he has to use the truck in his off hours as a bus for workers and is fired when he is caught. From there he moves from one scheme to the next, sometimes with success but ultimately putting himself in a position where he has to choose between himself and his family.
“Very simple, he says. Always get your percent. Make sure and get your percent. On everything. Always.”
There are many books out there about the Jews and World War II but The Lion Seeker comes from the unique angle of the Jews in South Africa. Bonert masters the patois of this community, using a blend of Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu and English that brings to life the diversity of these people and their deep desire to fit into their surroundings. At the same time, Bonert creates in Isaac a character that never fits in, who rebels and pushes against societal norms in his personal and professional life. He falls in love with a golden blonde goddess named Yvonne, the wealthy daughter of clients and does not seem to understand that she is using him until it is too late. The only constant in Isaac’s life is his all-consuming desire to give his mother the life he feels she deserves but for this deeply flawed man even that becomes negotiable. As the war draws closer, he is forced to make a decision about his future and the future of his mother’s family who are trapped in Lithuania.
The Lion Seeker explores moral themes on the large scale of humanity and the more intimate level of one man’s nature. Bonert succeeds at creating larger-than-life characters and stories that lure the reader through the novel but with so many it is difficult to develop them all. This is not enough to detract from the novel’s storytelling value but may mean that despite being over 570 pages some readers are left wanting more.