AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, some 70,000 Jewish live in South Africa. Most are descendants from Lithuanian immigrants. They fled Europe, hoping for a better life on a new continent. Kenneth Bonert's ancestors were among them. Bonert is the author of a new novel, "The Lion Seeker," about a Jewish boy growing up in Johannesburg. The book is set in the years leading up to World War II.
Here's editor and critic Ellah Allfrey with a review.
ELLAH ALLFREY: Isaac's father had made the journey to South Africa years before. But when the book begins, the ship carrying him and his mother, Gitelle, is just arriving. For now, Gitelle sets about ordering their lives. In one memorable scene she clears out the bladerfools and parasites - the friends she feels are sapping her husband's time and energy. She's forceful. But it's Isaac who drives the story.
He is not always a sympathetic character. He can be bull headed and violent. Spurred by his mother's blind faith, he leaves school and bets on several money-making schemes - some legal, many not.
Bonert does not shrink from the dark truth on which the opportunities of these immigrants are built. Fleeing Europe, Isaac and his family have found a new status no longer at the bottom of the pile. Life may be difficult but at least they're not black. Gitelle, with a sense of self-preservation, puts it to Isaac plainly: We are whites. We are Jews but we are whites here. If People see you with coloreds and hear you talk like that then they will think maybe we have coffee in our blood.
Thankfully, Bonert is too thoughtful a writer to allow Isaac an epiphany or a bleeding heart. Instead he opts for a more complicated truth: Isaac easily accepts the privileges his color allows him.
This is a first novel so it's easy to forgive the occasional tremors in plotting that felt, towards the end of the book, too close to melodrama. But "The Lion Seeker" is a captivating story, offering both page-turning thrills and a painful meditation on destiny and volition. It is a gifted writer who can mine history and flex the imagination in such a creative and memorable way.
CORNISH: Ellah Allfrey is the deputy chair of the Caine Prize for African writing. The book she reviewed was "The Lion Seeker" by Kenneth Bonert.
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