“The Lioness,” Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, kicks off with a red-alert epigraph. No, not the one attributed to Audrey Hepburn — “Everything I learned, I learned from the movies” — but Orson Welles’s “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Indeed, Bohjalian’s story intermittently raises the question: Where could you halt this narrative to conjure up a happy ending? And for whom?
The magic of movies, both dark and light, is at play here: Several of the book’s characters have found success in Hollywood, while others are struggling with the weighty baggage of parents-as-industry-icons or carrying childhood terrors in their emotional makeup. Most chapters begin with excerpts from The Hollywood Reporter and other fan-and-film publications that traffic in breathless, gossipy items such as this scene-setter: “Hollywood royalty gathered Saturday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Katie Barstow wed Rodeo Drive gallerist David Hall. The two of them left afterward for Paris and then the wilds of Africa on a ‘safari.’ Rumor has it that the actress is bringing along an entourage into the jungle…”
The Hollywood-as-culture theme plays out in other ways: An introductory page lists the book’s personalities in the format of a film’s cast-of-characters list, the kind of roster that might precede an Agatha Christie mystery or could even appear as a recalibrated lineup for a land-based version of “Gilligan’s Island” (the “homemaker”; the “screenwriter”; the “head guide”).
Because, yes, Hollywood star and America’s sweetheart Katie Barstow is off on a post-honeymoon safari in the Serengeti, posse in tow. There’s Katie and her husband, David; Katie’s psychologist brother Billy and his wife, Margie; Katie’s Black costar Terrance, who grapples regularly with the racism inherent in the world around him; screen ingenue Carmen and husband Felix, a frustrated screenwriter and son of an Oscar-winning director; along with Katie’s publicist and agent.
Calling themselves “Lions of Hollywood,” this privileged, somewhat arrogant group is about to get a bit of a wakeup call. For the novel’s true setting is not heady, glamorous Hollywood, but 1960s Tanzania, which, along with much of the rest of the continent, is in the throes of revolution, attempting to unshackle itself from European colonialism: “It was impossible to know what turns the upheaval would take: even the Americans on this safari had come from a nation born via a bloody caesarean, a revolution against one of the very same European nations that had demanded such fealty from East Africa.”
Not even Katie & Co.’s luxury safari camp — based in an idyllic slice of nature where wildebeest, zebras, giraffe, elephants, impalas, rhinos, and real lions cavort — is immune: Things take a sinister turn with a violent kidnapping. Faced with a dire situation, the various individuals in the Hollywood contingent must handle things as best they can in a bid to survive. Bohjalian, one of our finest storytellers, weaves his spellbinding magic by interleaving glimpses of Katie, David, and the others’ pre-kidnapping lives so that we gain rich snapshots of each character — their histories, secrets, and vulnerabilities — even as we learn more about their fates.
Each character has extraordinarily engaging elements — we learn about the local guides’ lives as well — but Carmen Tedesco may just steal your heart: Not only is she the outward definition of “what you see is what you get,” but she’s fully aware of the work she has to do to present herself in that fashion. “‘I make a good living as pretty sidekicks and bookish things that happen to fill out a sweater nicely, thank you very much,’” she notes at one point, while, at another, telling The Hollywood Reporter: “‘I’m a fighter. I don’t necessarily play fighters. But I know who I am and I know what it took to get where I am. … So every day I put on my big girl pants and I put on my big girl lipstick and I do what it takes. I do the work. When that camera’s red light goes on, I’m ready.’” She’s the ingenue all right, and a highly successful one at that.
Despite the darker undercurrents palpable throughout the novel — at a certain point those Hollywood Reporter excerpts are upstaged by breaking-news items from the Los Angeles Times — the narrative is enlivened by pleasurably distilled contemporary references from artist Peter Max, Kodak Instamatic cameras, and the Beatles’ concert at the Hollywood Bowl, to the days when smoking on planes was a given, fathers worked in advertising and mothers stayed home. Other cultural touchpoints include Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” the designer Mary Quant, and intelligence agencies’ use of brainwashing drugs. Movie references abound, from mentions of relevant films and actors, to characters’ perceptions of the African landscape through a filmmaking-related lens: “The heat rising up from the dust made the great herd of zebras and wildebeest in the distance glisten; they grazed, the landscape slightly out of focus, the zebras’ striping rippling in the incandescent air. A cinematographer or DP would either fix that or use that.”
Ultimately, the deadly-serious real-world tale that Bohjalian taps into — the horrifying outcomes of corruption-inducing power — is a not-so-gentle reminder that while you can’t always stop the story, sometimes you can change it. Or, as one character wielding the wryest of humors notes: “‘Well, this safari sure as hell went to pot. … Remind me never to use that travel agent again.’”
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 336 pages, $28
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.