Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Florence Holmes
Reviewed by Florence Holmes
Summary: Lions and humans living in close proximity in Cape Town
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 238 Date: August 2017
Publisher: Aardvark Bureau
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1910709252

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The opening of Green Lion is an apparently simple premise; a young South African man, Con, is tasked with picking up the belongings of an old friend, Mark, who is lying in a coma in hospital. Mark worked at a small zoo with a rare black-maned lioness, who mauled him and caused the coma. However, as the story unfolds, Rose-Innes reveals an unflinching embrace of the messiness of human and animal life, and their troubled interactions.

Wild animals are constant, lurking presences which come in different forms. There is Sekhmet the lioness who, on Con's first visit to the zoo, hurls herself against the bars of her cage, unseen but immense and threatening. There are the stuffed animals, including a lion, at Mark's mother's tomb-like house, their presence so overpowering that Mark's mother has retreated upstairs to a single room. There are the animal masks which Con's actress girlfriend and her friends wear, forcing him onto the balcony where he sees the shadows of different creatures as they dance and sing. There is an enormous snake wound round a little girl's shoulders. And there are postcard and keyring animals which fall out of pockets and school bags and through time. Rose-Innes' animals have a liquid quality, slipping between boundaries, often unseen but felt or heard, frequently doing the unexpected.

The human characters in 'Green Lion' are even more problematic. I felt an increasing ambivalence as the story developed around its protagonist. Con lies to those he is closest to, from casually pretending as a teenager that the fence on the mountain is electrified to impress Mark, to brazenly lying to police. He omits crucial information, seems unable to be truly close to anybody and is highly avoidant; the novel opens with Con picking up Mark's bag with the intention of visiting him in hospital and yet he never gets beyond its corridors. I struggled increasingly to sympathise or like him, frustrated by the selfishness of his actions, even when it put others in huge harm. From seeming like a victim at the beginning of the novel, increasingly he takes on the position of perpetrator, the original cause of the characters' misfortunes. Despite this, the depth of Rose-Innes' characterisation makes 'Green Lion' a satisfying read. Con's relationship with Mark and his family, which shifts between envy, admiration, dislike, alienation and pity is intricately woven and intensely sad, the claustrophobia of Con's mother's cluttered house is vivid, and the ending is haunting. This is not necessarily a likeable book, but it's certainly not a forgettable one.

Further reading suggestions: Scenes From Provincial Life by J M Coetzee and Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

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Buy Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes at


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