Con’s childhood friend, Mark Carolissen, was mauled by a lion and is in intensive care. Mark’s mother asks Con to fetch his belongings from the Lion Park where he worked as a volunteer. The writer has interwoven fact and fiction in the creation of this Lion Park, situated below Table Mountain in a Cape Town of the future; a Cape Town that is different from that of today, though perhaps a re-imagined Cape Town rather than a futuristic one. The fragile Table mountain eco-system has been closed off to people though not without protest.
This new Lion Park is situated very close to the real Groote Schuur zoo that had been established at the request of a deceased Rhodes in 1931. The project it has embarked on is an attempt to breed back the extinct black-maned Cape Lion. This is loosely based on a similar attempt by John Spence at the old Tygerberg Zoo that closed in 2012, thirty-three years after opening. When Con arrives to fetch Mark’s belongings, he thinks the new zoo looks like “a strange mirage, these bright new buildings floating on grim foundations”. Of course, in South Africa this applies to so many areas of life. This is a feature of the novel; all can be taken at face value or all can be allegory.
Con had an unconventional childhood. His mother had a string of boyfriends, each more unsavoury than the previous. He did not know his father. His mother, Lorraine, collects second hand goods and the house is chaotic with damaged goods piled up in every room. She “attracted junk, trafficked in the stuff” while Con constantly cleaned and tidied with little success. He believes Lorraine uses stuff “to fill the hole where memories should be”. He spends time searching through the clutter for clues about his father because the “hollowness at the heart of things” came from not knowing him. He is very introverted at school and hardly mingles at all. Until Mark comes along. Mark is that boy that skates through life with ease, darling of all. Mark takes a liking to him and life becomes very different. He loved Mark’s house as a boy as well as his “exotic parents”. This house is also cluttered but in a different way; it is a house full of stuffed heads, a menagerie of hunting trophies. These two different houses are like characters in the story; they define the lives of their inhabitants, they are stuffed with memories, history, and loss. The atmosphere is brilliantly evoked; one can almost smell the dust and become overwhelmed by the clutter.
The main thread of the narrative is the story of Con and Mark; their closeness and their estrangement. In a convoluted way, the situation in which each finds himself is a result of actions and inactions of the past. A tragedy involving Mark’s sister is hinted at and then revealed towards the end of the novel. The tension and dread builds up until the whole world seems out of balance.
The lion motif appears throughout in the form of stuffed animals, wooden carvings, postcards and the real flesh and blood lions that are part of a breeding experiment. Lions loom in dreams and take on mystical proportions. They are the externalisation of hope for those whose lives have been shattered. The green lion particularly is an object that travels through the novel holding different meanings for different people, leading Mark to search for meaning through alchemy that in turn leads him to the Lion House. To Con, “this place was a needle that his life kept threading back through, over and over, double stitching”.
Con is a frustrating character; he lives off his girlfriend Elyse while he pretends to find a job. He initially claims to have not known Mark very well though it becomes clear that this is a lie. He has no skills, little ambition, is apathetic and stuck. He does not even have the gumption to visit Mark in hospital. It is as if there is a brick wall stopping him. Yet by the end of the novel, the reasons for this are illuminated. Mark and his mother exhibit a classist type superiority while Con is a permanent outsider.
This is the most unusual novel I have read in a long time. It delves into the human realm, the animal realm and the mystical realm yet it is firmly rooted in our current reality. It explores relationships and exposes the hidden motivations that drive unlikely connections.It is many-layered and rich with analogy and metaphor, which makes it a rewarding read.