The story in Chris Bohjalian’s The Lioness is straightforward: Beloved movie star Katie Barstow hosts an all-expenses-paid photo safari to Kenya with her new husband, David Hill; her brother, Billy Stepanov; Billy’s pregnant wife, Margie; and their friends, including the actors Terrance Dutton and Carmen Tedesco, and Carmen’s husband, Felix Demeter. Shortly after they arrive, the group and their guides are kidnapped. As they soon winkle out, their captors are Russian with noms de guerre taken from American astronauts.
It’s important to know that this all goes down in 1964, a year of not only the Cold War but also the Simba rebellion in the eastern Congo, the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence and various other conflicts around the African continent. It is a terrible time to fly to East Africa to take pictures of wildlife.
Each chapter is narrated by a different person, framed by the narration of a now-elderly member of the group who’s looking back on these events from 2022. While most of the captives show a surprising amount of mettle when faced with a group of criminals who will shoot them as easily as they would a game animal, some readers may wonder whether Katie and her guests are acting as if they are in a movie in which everything depends on outsmarting the latest Bond villain. They seem to have learned survival strategies from somewhere, and why not Hollywood?
Some of the captives discover that escape comes with its own problems, including the scorching sun and a lack of food, water and first aid out on the savanna. There are also dangerous animals, some of which target humans as an easy meal. With a matter-of-fact tone, Bohjalian details death by leopard, hyena and, in one truly satisfying scene, puff adder. When the captives have a moment to catch their breaths, they wonder why they were nabbed in the first place. Of course the kidnappers wanted high-profile targets who’d bring them a nice bit of ransom money—but there’s also a darker reason connected to the Cold War.
Bohjalian traveled to the Serengeti to research this novel in 2020, but his fast-paced tale allows little time for contemplating sunsets through the branches of baobab trees. Instead, The Lioness succeeds in showing how otherwise pampered folks react when faced with the unthinkable.