Get a big group of Hollywood’s elite — actors, agents and producers, along with assorted friends and spouses — together for a photo safari in the wilds of Africa. What could possibly go wrong with a pampered posse of high-maintenance men and women on this 1964 excursion?
Author Chris Bohjalian takes us along in “The Lioness,” a crisply told novel about Katie Barstow’s honeymoon gone wildly astray.
Katie is one of the hottest young actors in the world, newly married to an art dealer and eager for a luxurious honeymoon on safari in the Serengeti. It won’t be like they are really roughing it, of course; they have guides and staff to set up camp, cook gourmet meals, draw baths in a waterproof canvas tub and, of course, gin and tonics on ice, courtesy of a kerosene-powered ice maker.
It’s these little details — combined with Bohjalian’s intricately drawn characters put in a dandy “why is this happening?” story — that make this novel hard to put down. And as readers learn more about each of the nine people on safari, it becomes a guessing game as to who might be the reason the group is abducted by Russian mercenaries.
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The target could be Katie, “now that she was — and the words simultaneously made her bask and cringe — a movie star.” Possibly it’s Terrance Dutton, her Black co-star in a controversial movie. “He’d gotten death threats before when they’d been shooting on location, especially the two times he’d agreed to film south of the Mason-Dixon line. … He hoped he’d never have to film again in the South but he knew that his clout was limited.” Or David Hill, Katie’s husband of 13 days.
There are reasons for most of the nine members of the party to be the real target of their abductors.
But what really matters is that the abduction goes wrong, and much of the excursion watches in horror as the head guide is shot dead with an elephant gun. All nine members of the excursion react differently to the attack: Some are stoic, some are heroic and at least one, Felix Demeter, is downright cowardly.
The screenwriter son of a famous director, Felix is struggling to make a name for himself while also being married to Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, another actor. When Felix sees the guide shot, he vomits, cries and curls into a ball on the ground.
Carmen “couldn’t believe her husband was crying. She was shocked that he had thrown up in the dirt. ... How was it possible, Carmen thought, and what did it say about her that right now — right now, facedown on the ground — she was thinking about how pathetic her husband was, and how glad she was (thank God) that she hadn’t taken his name, since she was likely to divorce him when they returned to California?”
How fun it is to come across a character we can all disdain.
But what follows from the murder is a nail-biting 200-plus pages of worrying about who might live, who might die and why the group was targeted in the first place. Throw in plenty of spot-on references to 1960s pop-culture and political dynamics — the civil rights battle in the United States, the uneasy politics following President Kennedy’s assassination, and plenty of nuggets about stars like Shirley MacLaine and Natalie Wood — and you have all the elements of a thrill-ride-turned-miniseries. (“The Flight Attendant,” anyone?)
The abductors are not painted as one-dimensional bad guys. When one of the captives who was cut by glass worries aloud that her wound is infected, the abductor grows angry that she didn’t mention it and goes in search of medicine. He also goes for help because, as he explained to the woman earlier, the captives are more valuable alive than dead.
It’s not giving anything away to say that the party of nine that began the safari does not end as a party of nine. But Bohjalian takes us deep into Africa with detailed depictions of giraffes and gazelles, hyenas and horror — and brings us back home satisfied with the roaring good story.
Amanda St. Amand is a former Post-Dispatch editor.