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Sweeping saga fails to capture full story of Jews in South Africa

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A Jewish family is caught in the politics of exclusion in a sweeping saga that begins in pre-Second World War South Africa.

In his first novel, Toronto-based journalist and short-story writer Kenneth Bonert traces the history of Jews who fled pogroms in Europe in the first part of the 20th century. Epic in scope, The Lion Seeker tries but ultimately does not succeed in capturing the magnitude of events that unfolded in those tumultuous years, the discrimination Jews were subjected to and their role in racial segregation in South Africa.

Bonert's story follows the Helger family's efforts to re-establish their lives in South Africa in the aftermath of pogroms in Lithuania. Unfortunately, it feels as if Bonert is trying to educate the reader about history instead of following the characters' journeys in their time and setting.

Knopf Canada's only 2013 title in its respected New Faces of Fiction series, The Lion Seeker lacks the momentum of such historical novels as Kate Grenville's moving 2005 Commonwealth Prize winner, The Secret River, about the first contact in Australia or The Headmaster's Wager by Toronto's Vincent Lam about the Chinese minority in Vietnam.

Still, Bonert has a keen eye for detail. The South African native's descriptions of the landscape conjure precise images -- "low-veld clouds, fat-bellied with the weight of the water they bear, black as deep bruises."

But when it comes to information necessary to colour the narrative, Bonert loses his balance. His main character is Isaac, a rebellious tough whose life lessons are spelled out from the minute to the momentous.

Bonert writes in the vernacular, giving Isaac's personality an authentic, rough tone. He also has his characters converse in their native Yiddish, but he translates their dialogue rather than seamlessly incorporating their meaning into the narrative, diluting the impact of their exchanges.

Isaac records the details of every individual, every meal, every location -- "Green curtains undulate by glass doors opening onto a tiny balcony that she calls a Juliet, overlooking the terraced gardens, the swimming pool, the tennis court and the neat rose bushes and cacti stands tended by the garden boys in their overalls."

He delivers his point with a heavy hand, overloading the plot.

Similarly, there's nothing left to the imagination as Isaac fumbles his way through his adolescent sexual urges and a doomed romance with a non-Jewish socialite in his efforts to join the white Anglo middle class.

Later, unable to divest himself of his heritage or rebuff the social forces working against him, he festers over how to deal with an anti-Semitic thug at work. These experiences create ambivalence about the racism he practises towards blacks. But the preponderance of his reflections dilutes the emotional intensity of the buildup toward the uncovering of a family secret.

At the same time Isaac gives little advance notice of his commitment when he enlists and marches off to war. This, along with the conclusion of the novel, combine to create an uneven and unsatisfying read.

 

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

The Lion Seeker
By Kenneth Bonert
Knopf Canada, 576 pages, $25

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J8

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