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Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes (ARC Book Review)

‘In the Sea Point bedroom, the duvet was straightened and turned back, waiting with its usual promise of dreams and nightmares.’

Book Review

I was first acquainted with the charm and elegance of Rose-Innes’ prose when I read Nineveh. In that she captivated me, pulling me into a world of swarming insects and the beautiful randomness that exists within nature’s breast, especially when left to its own devices. But whereas in Nineveh the protagonist sought to bring about control of nature’s pests by replacement and when necessary eradication, in Green Lion, we find the protagonist seeking to maintain control, to keep nature contained so that it may educate and conserve.

Con Marais is literally thrown in with the lions after an old school friend Mark is mauled and hospitalised, leaving him to take up the position as the keeper of Sekhmet, a black-maned lioness in threat of extinction. His girlfriend Elyse isn’t too impressed by this as the position is unpaid and he was supposed to be looking for a real paid job and has been staying rent-free with her for some time. Somehow though, he feels a responsibility to help out at the park, perhaps due to a buried guilt he has carried over the death of Mark’s sister when he was much younger. Rose-Innes takes us back to that past and reveals the rocky friendship he had with Mark when he was younger, as boys growing up in Cape Town, and the time he spent with Mark’s family, a family that was whole, something he had never had.

Back in the present, Con can’t bring himself to visit Mark in hospital at first, but he does take Mark’s mother Margaret. When he sees her it reminds him of the past and how now in the present things have changed, his own mother Lorraine, now passed on, Margaret, now idly stumbling around a large and empty house waiting for Mark to return, a breeding park all out of money, and a lioness missing her mate after being put down shortly after the attack on Mark. The present seems sad and repressed, but so too does the past. A past frequented with the threat of lions, of fences being put up, of a society being segregated as if they too were lions, needing to be conserved and protected from their selves, from their own dreams. We find dreams are important in Con’s life, for he often seems torn between that world and the real world as if they were both very similar states.

There are so many story arcs threading through the novel, so many moments of glorious observations and beautifully rendered prose, that at times I felt the sadness was life-affirming, leaving me sad and yet hopeful for the human spirit and the saviour of all animals. I was interested to see where the story would take me, where it all would end. Take the synergy of two young girls’ deaths years apart, and we see that the past is living alongside the present, as are the pains inherent in that past, as are the potential losses of the future.

This book has a symmetry with its predecessor Nineveh, for in that the desire of Katya Grubbs was to end the fight on nature and to just let it flourish and do its thing, knowing it will eventually anyway, but in Green Lion, Con Marais very sadly has to do the opposite, end the fight, yes, but on the rather less-heartening inevitability of nature not flourishing and instead growing extinct. Perhaps there then the lesson is, at insect level, nature will thrive and survive, but when it comes to lions and the most beautiful creatures in the world, not even fences can protect them from the cruel realities inherent and sometimes hidden in our world. Something more is needed, something perhaps humans are not even capable of.

If Rose-Innes’ novel Nineveh was stirring and rousing to the spirit, refusing to tie up the loose ends of the past, then Green Lion, by contrast, is hauntingly self-aware, a novel that bridges the gap between the past and present so that there are no loose ends, only the hope that in the future humanity will do a better job of conserving what is not yet lost.

Green Lion is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and a journey I will certainly be taking again. On top of that, Henrietta Rose-Innes is a glorious writer who manages to write about mankind and the natural world, without taking sides.

I would like to thank Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau for providing me with an ARC of this book, and would like to state that this is my honest and unbiased review.

Henrietta Rose-Innes


288pp. Aardvark Bureau. Paperback, £8.99. Release Date: 21st August 2017

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