Fierce Kingdom

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Read 19/11/2017-23/11/2017

Rating: 4 stars

I don’t want to give too much away about this book, because I appreciated the suspense of not knowing what would happen next. It’s a stellar story, full of tension balanced by sweet humour and almost surreal moments of drifting thought, the mind’s way of distracting from stress and danger rendered in words on a page.

I encountered Fierce Kingdom through Cathy G’s Eats Plants, Reads Books blog. Her review pulled me in, and I requested that my local library bought a copy.

The narrative focuses on Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln. They have taken a trip to the zoo, one of Lincoln’s favourite destinations. They discuss Lincoln’s current favourite obsession, Norse Gods and superheroes, while playing in his former favourite obsession, the Dinosaur Pit. Lincoln is absorbed by whatever is at the forefront of his imagination, and when Joan, who has briefly zoned out, comes back to the present and tells Lincoln it’s time to go, he enters into negotiations about whether she will carry him to the car or not. It’s all brilliantly described and I was with Joan in every moment.

I was still immersed in this world of playful exploration and distracted thought when events took a bleaker turn. Joan has heard noises like balloons popping or firecrackers being set off, but it isn’t until she nears the exit that she realises what’s happening and goes into survival mode.

Lincoln is delightfully described by author Gin Phillips. His way of processing the world, his imagination, his nascent sense of humour, all reminded me of my nephews and the sons of friends at that age. Phillips also describes Joan well, particularly the way she tries to balance her sense of motherhood and responsibility for Lincoln with her need to be a defined individual. The way her thoughts flit from concern for Lincoln’s safety to wondering what’s going on in the outside world felt very realistic.

As events unfold, Joan has to make a series of choices, some of which are choices you hope you wouldn’t have to make in a situation like this. It’s an increasingly familiar situation in our current times, sadly, something that is reflected in how Joan processes what she’s experiencing. The zoo gradually changes from being a family attraction to being a hunting ground. Joan’s survival instincts made me think about The Hunger Games and Predator, and not just because Lincoln has a Predator action figure. Phillips chose well when she used a zoo as the setting. It’s a contained space, but it also lends itself to being like a jungle, with different terrains and environments, wide open spaces and places suitable for hiding, and a sense of isolation.

This is a book that has many levels to it. It’s a straightforward thriller rooted in the western world’s current anxiety about extremism, but it’s also an interesting character study of how life shapes us and informs our behaviours. Phillips skilfully reveals more about Joan as the book goes on, without it seeming like amateur psychology. Joan has time to think about her childhood, her relationship with her parents, the bond she has with her uncle, and some of her more subtle behaviours start to make sense. Phillips isn’t quite as skilful when outlining the character of the other main protagonist in the book. For me, the difference is in Phillips feeling closer to Joan as a character and making assumptions about the other protagonist. I suppose, unless you meet with people outside of your social circle and try to understand their situation and behaviour, it’s difficult for a writer to truly inhabit a different sort of person’s experience. And maybe Phillips doesn’t want the reader to experience sympathy for the other protagonist. Sometimes it’s good to have a side to root for.

There is a particularly heart stopping moment towards the end where everything goes into slow motion and then resumes, just as it would in reality.

This is an absolute cracker of a book. Make time for it in your reading life.

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