“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans” – John Lennon
As I finished reading the novel which fully deserves that loosely and widely used epithet ‘magnum opus’, I realized that The Lion Trees was much more than what it claims to be and definitely wiser than what I could comprehend in the first reading. And yet, it is those first impressions that matter most of the time and of which I’m about to share with you. As I close my eyes and look back at the book, certain images that my mind crafted while reading this novel comes alive to me in spurts and in solitary, of connecting with another individual, experiencing their angst, their remorse, their resolve, their happiness, their endings. And when I think about it, it sometimes feels like I’m drifting in and out of sleep, recollecting images from a dream that I’ve seen or perhaps one I’m seeing right now but I know they were from a book, from a novel that is as real as fictionalized reality gets or perhaps and funnily enough from pure fiction shot with an absolute dose of honest reality.
Author Owen Thomas’s two part saga on family and the lives of individuals that make up such a social unit form the base for his novel, ‘The Lion Trees’. Juxtaposing with the moral and social environment of America circa 2005, his novel reads as a part impressionistic memoir and part anecdotal account of the lives of five individuals of a family. They are the Johns family; papa Hollis, mom Susan and siblings David and Tilly’s separate narrative intertwines with each other’s and sometimes stays afloat on its own. But the one thing that unites them all is Ben, Hollis and Susan’s third child and the one constant presence in all their lives.
The character of Hollis is of a retired banker, a man of many stories, a man with odd hobbies and a stranger interest in a former colleague’s daughter. Wife Susan, the proverbial caregiver of the family increasingly finds herself contemplating her individual future separate from that of her family; looking for a more meaningful purpose to her existence. So it would be no surprise to state at this point that their marriage has hit a giant roadblock and isn’t going anywhere, a fact that is openly acknowledged by both her adult children. David is the quintessential right guy at all the wrong places, saying and doing all the wrong things. His earnestness and his almost obsessive compulsion to follow a path of righteous integrity lands him trouble more often than not. Ben, the youngest suffers from Down syndrome, is the epitome of love and innocence and a figure that resembles the allegorical home all the four characters return to whenever they go off the track. And then there’s Tilly, the only character who’s narrative transcends the linear nature of the book and we get to see her explore herself and her story in a retrospective manner down the ages from her struggles as an young aspiring starlet to an established and mature woman and actress. The Lion Trees is their story, part one deals with their falls while part two shows their revival, starting their lives afresh.
You take one look at the novel and your impulsively judgemental mind may be excused for jumping the gun and trying to categorize the novel into that of a genre with a dark theme and heavy duty drama and thinking it to be related to its similar American and Russian cousins. But by the time you are done with The Lion Trees, you would have forgotten all about the length and will realize what an amazingly entertaining piece of literature it was and do I dare say it, a serious novel that provides you with some genuine laugh out loud moments.
Owen Thomas is so sure of his writing and the unique and individual voices that he has created for his characters that he doesn’t feel the need to add (a highly distracting) ‘he said’, ‘she said’ after every line of conversation between the characters. The level of detailing is pretty amazing, even the way each character’s immediate environment has been made up to highlight and reflect on their unique personalities has been well thought out. In addition to the novel’s principal characters, Owen has given us as a fine array of secondary characters as well. Their back stories and their sub plots will be relatable to most. There are some stand out scenes in the book, worth mentioning are Susan’s political speech, Angus Mann’s diatribe against Hollywood and pretty much all the scenes involving David, especially those of him teaching history to his students, his interrogation scenes and the final courtroom drama. The novel is also filled with great quotable quotes, a true book aficionado’s delight.
The Lion Trees depicts people who can’t be slotted as just saints or monsters, they fall somewhere in between, just like any of us. Owen Thomas’s writing leaves you richer with emotions and contentment even before the ending arrives. And if there is only one book that you are going to read this year, make it The Lion Trees.
Print Length: 839 pages
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