Synopses & Reviews
In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker
brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
Are you a stupid or a clever?
Such is the refrain in Isaac Helgers mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mothers question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburgs poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?
Isaacs mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.
Meanwhile, South Africas history, bound up with Europes but inflected with its own accents—Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English—begins to unravel. Isaacs vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaacs fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mothers secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.
A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught — hearts open and wrecked — between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.
"What begins as a jewel-box romance soon breaks open into a harrowing saga of war. Orringer, drawing upon assiduous research into Hungarian history (and her own), conveys a piercing sense of what it means to be fated by one’s blood, as well as a rich understanding ot the capricious nature of survival." Vogue
"Orringer avoids bathos and has a gift for re-creating distant times and places: a Paris suffused with the scent of paprikas and the sounds of American jazz, the camraderies and cruelties of the work camps. The ticking clock of history keeps it urgent and moving forward, and the result is, against all odds, a Holocaust page-turner. Buy it." New York magazine
"A long, richly detailed debut novel from prizewinning short-story writer Orringer. . . . Her story develops without sentimentality or mawkishness, though it is full of grand emotions. Though the events of the time, especially in Hungary, are now the stuff of history books and increasingly fewer firsthand memories, Orringer writes without anachronism, and convincingly. Written with the big picture view of Doctor Zhivago or Winds of War — and likely to be one of the big books of the season." Kirkus Reviews
"A hugely ambitious undertaking, but [Orringer] has every detail under control, from the architectural currents in Europe in the 1930s to the day-to-day struggle to survive. . . . Completely absorbing . . . an astonishing achievement." Booklist (starred review)
"To bring an entire lost world — its sights, its smells, its heartaches, raptures and terrors — to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul, as Julie Orringer does in The Invisible Bridge, takes something more like genius." Michael Chabon
"What a rare and splendid achievement this novel is—emotionally gripping, intellectually challenging, deftly plotted, skillfully composed, and vibrantly alive with the images and sounds and textures and human flurry of another time and place. I was dazzled. And I was moved."
"[Isaac's] is a story of fighting and deciding what's worth fighting for, of cultivating a strength that doesn't erase empathy. . . The pages turn quickly, with suspenseful prose and colorful vernacular dialogue that could easily be used in a blockbuster film."
"[The Lion Seeker] will grab readers everywhere with the story of the struggling refugees in a new country, the horror they escaped from, and the guilt about those left behind, with secrets not revealed until the very end. . . The immigrant family struggle comes across as universal, whether concerning radicals or the ultra-Orthodox. . . A great choice for book-group discussion."
"South African-born Canadian writer Bonert serves up a latter-day Exodus in this debut novel."
"Kenneth Bonerts raw and ambitious novel of working-class Jewish life in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s...[an] ambitious and unruly novel."
"Here is the South African novel I've been waiting for. Kenneth Bonert tells it true, not safe. His protagonist is worthy of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the South Africa he gives us vivid, raw, dangerous, shot through with moral complexity."
—Lynn Freed, author of House of Women and The Servants' Quarters
"The Lion Seeker is a powerful and thoroughly engrossing novel, grand in scope, richly imagined, full of dramatic incident, and crafted in a prose that is by turns roughhewn and lyrical. To read it is to be reminded how great a great novel can be."
—David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World and Natasha: And Other Stories
"A remarkably assured debut, The Lion Seeker is a riveting, lyrical, and profound journey towards the intersection of private lives and public destinies. Kenneth Bonert has all the makings of a major novelist."
—Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times
"The Lion Seeker is no-holds-barred, bare-knuckle-fight raw. A historical novel that feels desperately current; a Rosenburg and Juliet love story shorn of all sentiment; a stock-taking of human brutality and its flip side, our capacity to reach beyond our limitations and be better, all rendered in prose so expert, so fine honed that it belies the adjective ‘debut. It joins classics like J.M. Coetzees Disgrace and Rian Malans My Traitors Heart in the canon, and renders the South African experience universal. A first-round knock-out for Kenneth Bonert."
—Richard Poplak, author of Ja No Man: Growing Up White in Apartheid-Era South Africa
"This powerful novel begins with a mystery that propels its characters through their difficult lives in prewar South Africa and haunts their actions until a dramatic and searing climax based on the Holocaust in Lithuania. The Lion Seeker is vivid and illuminating, astonishing in its range and toughness, and simultaneously an expression of love and regret for all that has been lost."
—Antanas Sileika, author of Underground and Woman in Bronze and Director of the Humber School for Writers
Praise from abroad for The Lion Seeker:
"An emotional tour de force that plumbs the depths of human hope, fear, guilt, and rage, and bears all the hallmarks of a masterwork."
"A titanic novel. . . An epic, a vast story about a rarefied subject: the community of Ashkenazi Jews who emigrated to South Africa before World War II. . . Mazel tov, Kenneth Bonert, you have written a blockbuster of a book."
—Toronto Star (Canada)
"Bonert's prose is sharp and masterful, clipping along at a breathless pace while still managing to wow us with imagery, clever turns of phrase and believable dialogue peppered with several languages."
—Globe and Mail (Canada)
"The Lion Seeker is astonishingly mature, admirably incautious. It moves with the sleight-of-hand of the born artist, ramping up for naked tugs at the heart. . . It's visually and thematically sweeping, rich with diverse personalities, packed with tender waves and roiling crests of love, loss, hope, hatred. It casts its bit players (even a final-act dog) as deftly as its stars. . . This novel, quite apart from what it might become, remains completely and thrillingly itself."
—National Post (Canada)
"If not for the setting-South Africa in the 1930s and '40s-the novel's hapless protagonist could have been plucked from the doom-laden pages of Thomas Hardy. . . The Lion Seeker, like its 19th-century literary forebears, is larded with enough plot twists, reversals of fortune, and revelations of family secrets to keep many readers engrossed."
—Quill & Quire (Canada)
Julie Orringer's astonishing first novel — eagerly awaited since the publication of her heralded best-selling short-story collection, How to Breathe Underwater
("Fiercely beautiful." The New York Times
) — is a grand love story and an epic tale of three brothers whose lives are torn apart by war.
Paris, 1937. Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he has promised to deliver to C. Morgenstern on the rue de Sevigne. As he becomes involved with the letter's recipient, his elder brother takes up medical studies in Modena, their younger brother leaves school for the stage — and Europe's unfolding tragedy sends each of their lives into terrifying uncertainty. From the Hungarian village of Konyar to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the lonely chill of Andras's garret to the enduring passion he discovers on the rue de Sevigne, from the despair of a Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in forced labor camps and beyond, The Invisible Bridge tells the unforgettable story of brothers bound by history and love, of a marriage tested by disaster, of a Jewish family's struggle against annihilation, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war.
Expertly crafted, magnificently written, emotionally haunting, and impossible to put down, The Invisible Bridge resoundingly confirms Julie Orringer's place as one of today's most vital and commanding young literary talents.
Orringer's astonishing first novel is a grand love story and an epic tale of three brothers whose lives are torn apart by war. An unforgettable story of history and love, of marriage tested by disaster, of a Jewish family's struggle against annihilation, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war.
In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
About the Author
Julie Orringer is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize anthology, and Zoetrope: All-Story. She is thirty years old and lives in San Francisco.
Reading Group Guide
1. What does the opening chapter establish about the cultural and social milieu of prewar Budapest? What do Andras’s reactions to Hász household reveal about the status of Jews within the larger society? How do the differences between the Hász and Lévi families affect their assumptions and behavior during the war? Which scenes and characters most clearly demonstrate the tensions within the Jewish community?
2. Why do Andras and his friends at the Ecole Spéciale tolerate the undercurrent of anti-Semitism at the school even after the verbal attack on Eli Polaner (pp. 39–40) and the spate of vandalism against Jewish students (p. 94)? To what extent are their reactions shaped by their nationalities, political beliefs, or personal histories? Why does Andras agree to infiltrate the meeting of Le Grand Occident (pp. 97–102)? Is his belief that “[the police] wouldn’t deport me . . . Not for serving the ideals of France” (p. 102), as well as the reactions of Professor Vago and Andras’s father to the German invasion of Czechoslovakia (p. 266) naïve, or do they represent widespread opinions and assumptions?
3. Andras and Klara’s love blossoms against the background of uncertainties and fear. Is Klara’s initial lack of openness about her background justified by her situation? Why does she eventually begin an affair with Andras? Are they equally responsible for the arguments, break-ups, and reconciliations that characterize their courtship? Do Klara’s revelations (pp. 214–34) change your opinion of her and the way she has behaved?
4. Despite the grim circumstances, Andras and Mendel produce satirical newspapers in the labor camps. What do the excerpts from The Snow Goose (p. 331), The Biting Fly (pp. 360–61), and The Crooked Rail (p. 437) show about the strategies that helped laborers preserve their humanity and their sanity? What other survival techniques do Andras and his fellow laborers develop?
5. In Budapest, the Lévi and Hász families sustain themselves with small pleasures, daily tasks at home and, in the case of the men, working at the few jobs still available to Jews (pp. 352–55, pp. 366–77, pp. 405–10). Are they driven by practical or emotional needs, or both? Does the attempt to maintain ordinary life represent hope and courage, or a tragic failure to recognize the ever-encroaching danger? What impact do the deprivations and degradations imposed by the Germans have on the relationship between the families? Which characters are the least able or willing to accept the threats to their homeland and their culture?
6. What details in the descriptions of Bánhida (pp. 356–63, pp. 392–99), Turka (pp. 486–503), and the transport trains (pp. 558–66) most chillingly capture the cruelty perpetrated by the Nazis? In addition to physical abuse and deprivation, what are the psychological effects of the camps’ rules and the laws imposed on civilian populations?
7. General Martón in Bánhida (pp. 399–402), Captain Erdó, and the famous General Vilmos Nagy in Turka all display kindness and compassion. Miklós Klein engages in the tremendously dangerous work of arranging emigrations for fellow Jews (pp. 422–23). What motivates each of them to act as they do? What political ideals and moral principles lie at the heart Nagy’s stirring speech to the officers-in-training (pp. 506–7)? (Because of his refusal to support official anti-Semitic policies, Nagy was eventually forced to resign from the Hungarian army; in 1965, he was the first Hungarian named as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute.)
8. Why does Klara refuse to leave Budapest and go to Palestine (p. 510)? Is her decision the result of her own set of circumstances, or does it reflect the attitudes of other Jews in Hungary and other countries under Nazi control?
9. “He could no sooner cease being Jewish than he could cease being a brother to his brothers, a son to his father and mother” (p. 46). Discuss the value and importance of Jewish beliefs and traditions to Andras and other Jews, considering such passages as Andras’s feelings in the above quotation and his thoughts on the High Holidays (pp. 201–3); the weddings of Ben Yakov and Ilana (pp. 255–56) and of Andras and Klara (p. 317); the family seder in wartime Budapest (pp. 352–55); and the prayers and small rituals conducted in work camps.
10. The narrative tracks the political and military upheavals engulfing Europe as they occur. What do these intermittent reports demonstrate about the failure of both governments and ordinary people to grasp the true objectives of the Nazi regime? How does the author create and sustain a sense of suspense and portending disaster, even for readers familiar with the ultimate course of the war?
11. Throughout the book there are descriptions of Andras’s studies, including information about his lessons and the models he creates and detailed observations of architectural masterpieces in Paris. What perspective does the argument between Pingsson and Le Corbusier offer on the role of the architect in society (pp. 273–74)? Whose point of view do you share? What aspects of architecture as a discipline make it particularly appropriate to the themes explored in the novel? What is the relevance of Andras’s work as a set designer within this context?
12. Andras’s encounters with Mrs. Hász (p. 6) and with Zoltán Novak (pp. 19–20) are the first of many coincidences that determine the future paths of various characters. What other events in the novel are the result of chance or luck? How do the twists and turns of fortune help to create a sense of the extraordinary time in which the novel is set?
13. Does choice also play a significant role in the characters’ lives? What do their decisions (for example, Klara’s voluntary return to Budapest; György’s payments to the Hungarian authorities; and even Jószef’s attack on Andras and Mendel (p. 492)) demonstrate about the importance of retaining a sense of independence and control in the midst of chaos?
14. The Holocaust and other murderous confrontations between ethnic groups can challenge the belief in God. “(Andras) believed in God, yes, the God of his fathers, the one to whom he’d prayed . . . but that God, the One, was not One who intervened in the way the needed someone to intervene just then. He had designed the cosmos and thrown its doors open to man, and man had moved in . . . The world was their place now” (p. 432). What is your reaction to Andras’s point of view? Have you read or heard explanations of why terrible events come to pass that more closely reflect your personal beliefs?
15. What did you know about Hungary’s role in World War II before reading The Invisible Bridge? Did the book present information about the United States and its Allies that surprised you? Did it affect your views on Zionism and the Jewish emigration to Palestine? Did it deepen your understanding of the causes and the course of the war? What does the epilogue convey about the postwar period and the links among past, present, and future?
16. “In the end, what astonished him the most was not the vastness of it all—that was impossible to take in, the hundreds of thousands dead from Hungary alone, and the millions from all over Europe—but the excruciating smallness, the pinpoint of which every life was balanced” (p. 558). Does The Invisible Bridge succeed in capturing both the “vastness of it all” and the “excruciating smallness” of war and its impact on individual lives?
17. Why has Orringer chosen “Any Case” by the Nobel Prize–winning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborkska as the coda to her novel? What does it express about individuals caught in the flow of history and the forces that determine their fates?
(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)
The questions, topics for discussion, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Invisible Bridge, a sweeping novel of World War II told through the story of one family, their loves and their losses. Julie Orringer, the author of the bestselling short-story collection How to Breathe Underwater, brings their world to life with astonishing power and insight.