The little silver box, an old snuff box that your grandmother used to use, sits on the table. You have no idea where it came from, but you know what is inside it. Cautiously you open it and inside is a single piece of paper folded three times. With trembling fingers you reach inside and take it. Unfolding it you see that written upon it in your grandmother’s cursive script is…..a blurb:
Be careful what you wish for…
Long ago, Andrew made a childhood wish, and kept it in a silver box. When it finally comes true, he wishes he hadn’t…
Long ago, Ben made a promise and he had a dream: to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. When he finally makes it, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined…
Ben and Andrew keep meeting in unexpected places, and the intense relationship that develops seems to be guided by fate. Or is it?
What if the very thing that draws them together is tainted by past secrets that threaten everything?
A dark, consuming drama that shifts from Zimbabwe to England, and then back into the past, The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also a devastatingly beautiful love story, with a tragic heart…
If you are a regular visitor to my little beardy blog, or you read my twitter feed, you cannot fail to notice that I have a thing for the books of Louise Beech. It’s more than a ‘thing’ really; it is a deep, passionate love affair that began after I read her wonderful The Mountain In My Shoe. If you have no idea as to what I am referring to then I refer you to this post HERE, where you can find out just how my love affair began and what I think of this and her other novels, How To Be Brave and Maria In The Moon (WARNING: contains much gushing – if you have just eaten then I would wait a while for it to go down. #justsayin).
If you scuttled off to read that post then welcome back. I’m guessing it didn’t scare you away? Good, because if it had then you would be missing out on the next part of this post – the most important part – the review of Louise’s fourth book, The Lion Tamer Who Lost (here-on known simply as Lion Tamer).
Let’s clear something up right from the word go: Lion Tamer isn’t a tale of a certain lion berating circus employee who lost something, maybe a watch or their inheritance. You may think that you are in for a tale of Big Tops, top hats, jaunty waistcoats, annoying as fuck, and super creepy, grown-up men throwing buckets of confetti over each other in the hilarious belief that it is actually water (no, seriously, my sides….), cars that fall apart, animals performing degrading and utterly pointless ‘tricks’ whilst all along most probably thinking “I am so going to rip your fucking head off if you crack that whip and point that fucking chair at me just once more, you top-hatted twat”, or something like that.
*ahem* got a little carried away there.
You are not going to be party to some great mystery as to what this lion tamer lost, where they lost it, who might have found it – if, indeed, it was found – and what significance it may have had for them. The only thing that the lion tamer should have lost is his head when the lion bit it off.
Sorry, I’m really not a fan of circuses, especially those that berate, tease, bully and generally fuck around with animals. Can you tell? 😉
So, are there actually any lion tamers in this book? Well yes, yes there are. There is a literal lion tamer, when Ben and Andrew go to the circus together – sadly this tamer doesn’t get his head bitten off – but the lion tamer in this story is really Ben (The Lion Tamer Who Lost is also the name of the children’s book that Andrew writes and is told at the start of each chapter. It is a little confusing at first, but it soon becomes clearer).
Lion Tamer begins in the middle: Ben is a young man who has just come out of a particularly traumatic relationship. He does what anyone would do after a difficult break-up; he buggers off to Africa to rehabilitate lions back into the wild. It’s what I would do. Only for Africa read pub and for rehabilitate lions read rehabilitate alcohol into my bloodstream. But this was no run of the mill break up and its scars will never fully heal. Ben had promised his mother before she died that he would follow his dreams of going to Africa, Zimbabwe in particular, to work for the Liberty Lion Rehabilitation Project, but he just never thought that it would be under these circumstances. Sorry, what’s that? What are these circumstances? Well, obviously I’m not going to describe these circumstances to you you cheeky blog reader you. You’ll need to discover that part for yourselves. Word of advice: have ALL the hankies ready. Go on, go around your house, or flat, bedsit, whatever, and gather up all the handkerchiefs you can find as you’ll be needing them throughout this book. If you don’t have any hankies, or at least ones that are not already snot encrusted abominations, then I suggest that you – and if anyone asks you, I didn’t suggest this, right? – nip over to your local old people’s home, and round up a few from there. There’s bound to be a plentiful supply and most of them will probably be asleep so they won’t even notice (you can return them fully laundered and folded after). I’ve yet to meet an old person who doesn’t have a hankie stuffed up a sleeve, or in their cleavage, somewhere, ready to whip out at a moments notice. Usually accompanied by a lick and then immediately applied to your face!
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes – lions and the taming thereof.
So, yes, Ben has been through the mill. When we meet him he is a withdrawn, sullen man who just wants to put his past behind him and set some lions free. Whilst in Zimbabwe Ben meets Esther, another volunteer on the programme. They don’t really hit it off at first as this exchange shows:
‘Still don’t fancy I Spy?’ she asks after a while.
‘Jesus,’ he responds gruffly, not quite sure why he feels so irritated. ‘What’s with you and that game?’
‘Just takes me back to when I was a kid.’
‘I don’t want to play a fucking game.’
‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ snaps Esther. ‘It was only a suggestion.’
‘Nothing.’ Ben realises he sounds like a petulant child and is glad the music gives them a little privacy in the back.
‘Well, something is.’
‘What’s it got to do with you?’ Ben regrets his harshness but being questioned about his sudden mood irritates him beyond belief.
‘Nothing,’ she says sadly.
‘So drop it then.’
‘You can be such a dickhead,’ Esther hisses.
‘Oh, get over yourself.’ She crosses her arms. ‘I bet half the people at the project have come away from some sort of shit back home. But none of them mope about like you do.’
Tetchy blighter, isn’t he? But he has good reasons and he’s not ready to share them with Esther just yet. As time goes along Esther and Ben become closer, and Esther falls in love with Ben and they begin a relationship. Only there’s something that Ben hasn’t told her; he is gay. Yup, that’s gonna be totes awks later!
Interesting fact: Lion Tamer didn’t start out as a love story between two men. Originally Ben was in love with a woman, Amy, who was quite a bit older than he. But then someone pointed out to Louise that they thought that Ben was gay. This came as a bit of a surprise to Louise, but she agreed and the book took on a whole new lease of life. Louise describes how this change came about in a marvellous piece written for the website booksbywomen.org (the full piece is here and is well worth reading). Here’s a wee excerpt:
‘When I first wrote The Lion Tamer Who Lost back in 2010, it was the intense love story of large-age-gap couple, Ben and Amy. Something tragic happens, they split, and Ben goes to volunteer at a lion sanctuary in Zimbabwe while Amy’s children’s book is published to great acclaim and success. A beta reader said to me, ‘Are you aware that Ben is gay?’ I was a little stunned. I hadn’t been. But I realised he was; I just hadn’t known it. My lovely Ben now had way bigger problems. So, with the biggest rewrite ever, Amy became Andrew, and the novel took on a whole new depth.’
A huge thank you to that mystery beta reader 😉
So Amy became Andrew. Ben meets Andrew in the library where he is typing away at a keyboard irritating the hell out of him, but something clicks in Ben:
‘Tap, tap, tap. The rhythmic beat drove Ben mad. He banged his flat palms on the keyboard. The man peered around his screen, now, frowning. Ben caught his breath.
These words came to him.
Perhaps Ben had seen him before on the university campus; perhaps familiarity fired the odd feeling of knowing him. He had to be a mature student by the looks of him – unshaven, blond, pretty, but as though it had all happened by accident. His loveliness was at odds with a faded black shirt. The man frowned, returned to his screen, and read his work slowly and softly aloud. It stirred something jittery in Ben’s stomach.’
After a somewhat difficult first encounter Ben and Andrew, or Bendrew as I like to think of them (no, I don’t really, but it does have a certain ring to it, no? 🙂 ), embark on a relationship. It isn’t an easy ride though as Ben is still in the closet with his father and brother. His father, Will, is not the most modern or understanding of gentlemen and Ben is scared of what his father will think if he finds out he is gay and, despite his father’s failings, losing the only parent he has left. And so, on meeting him, Andrew is just his ‘friend’, albeit a very close one. Ben also has a trait, inherited from his mother, whereby he mispronounces words: Olvarian cancer; homosectional; aggregate (aggrevate), it’s something he does without knowing, but his father, and Andrew, pull him up on it to the point of frustration and annoyance from Ben.
Ok, if I’m not careful this isn’t going to be a review of Lion Tamer, but a bloody retelling, so I’ll stop there. 😉
Louise’s greatest skill is in her attention to the details. Her descriptions of the Zimbabwean Savanna are quite beautiful. You can feel the sun on your skin, taste the dust and even smell the lions as Ben sleeps in the enclosure with Lucy, the lioness he rescues and attempts to bond with before her release. She is a writer of great perception and acuity. She writes with sensitivity, with a sharp ear for dialogue and for creating depth of character. For instance, Andrew has Type 1 diabetes, something that Louise has explored in her fiction before in How To Be Brave. Only this isn’t fiction for Louise; her daughter has the disease. Throughout all of her books to date, Louise has woven in aspects of her real life experiences, often intimately so, and as such her books resonate that much more, bringing a quality to her stories in a way that few others can, enabling her to populate them with characters with real depth and humanity; they are made all the more real and believable because of these experiences.
The LGBTQ themes explored in this book are handled sensitively and very well. The fear and anxiety felt by Ben at the thought that his family will reject him will, I imagine, ring true with many LGBTQ, and non LGBTQ, readers. Personally, I have never, ever understood why someone should, or would, ever be judged for who they fall in love with based on sex. The majority of homophobes, bigots, ignorami – new word, just made it up – etc, just seem to focus on where, and what, people poke their genitals into. The old ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ argument gets trotted out, like some old china tea set at Xmas, whenever they are forced to argue against it. Frankly, who pokes who with what is of no one’s concern as long as it is legal and both parties give their full consent, but I have always thought that there is far more to sexuality than sex. Yes sex is important, but how many heterosexual couples – those deemed normal by the ignorant – have perfectly happy and long term relationships without sex? I imagine there are millions. As for *ahem* bum-fun, shall we call it, the very idea that that is unnatural is both offensive and ridiculous. It may not be for everyone, but that is personal choice, not an aberration of nature. However, this is what a lot of people seem to solely focus on, and same-sex couples/relationships continue to be judged on their sexual activities and not on how they feel for each other, which, SURPRISE, is exactly the same as that which different sex people experience!
Sorry, once again I got rather carried away there, but that is how powerful Louise’s storytelling and her writing is. It can stir up emotions that you never knew you had. Feelings that you thought never existed and gives you pause to think about people, ideas, situations that you may not have considered before.
On a personal level, Lion Tamer rung a lot of bells for me. There were times that I swear Louise was inside my head. I’ll be honest, ish, there were several parallels to my life in this book. I was shocked at times as to how much of what I was reading mirrored some aspects of my life. Not shocked in a bad way, but it did dredge up feelings and emotions that I thought I had buried and it is still, weeks later, making me think. Damn you, damn you to hell Beeeeeeeeeechhhhhhhhh *drops to knees and shakes fists in the air in my best Charlton Heston impersonation*
I knew that reviewing this book would be hard. Not just because I love Louise’s writing so much that I know that I’ll come across as a gushing, doe-eyed superfan on the verge of having a restraining order taken out, but because I genuinely loved this book for what it is and I want to get that across sincerely without putting you all off of potentially buying and reading it (which you will do, right? If not, gerroff of my blog *hooks thumb in direction away from blog*). If I had never heard of Louise Beech I would still have adored this book. As mentioned previously, I also have some personal connections to aspects of this story and I knew that getting that across would be difficult without this becoming too personal. I’m not sure if I fully succeeded in either of those aspects, if I’m honest! 😂
The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a beautiful, thought provoking and simply wonderful book. At its heart it is a tragic love story, but dig deeper and it is so much more than that. It is a look at the issues surrounding sexuality, acceptance, deception and the emotional fall out from dealing with an earth shattering tragedy. If this is your first foray into the world of Louise Beech then welcome – there are three more books to discover. I envy you. 😉
The lion Tamer Who Lost is out now in ebook and in lush paperback in September. 👌🏼
Louise Beech is an exceptional literary talent, whose debut novel How To Be Brave was a Guardian Readers’ Choice for 2015. The sequel, The Mountain in My Shoe was shortlisted for Not the Booker Prize. Maria in the Moon was compared to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and widely reviewed. All three books have been number one on Kindle, Audible and Kobo in USA/UK/AU. She regularly writes travel pieces for the Hull Daily Mail, where she was a columnist for ten years. Her short fiction has won the Glass Woman Prize, the Eric Hoffer Award for Prose, and the Aesthetica Creative Works competition, as well as shortlisting for the Bridport Prize twice and being published in a variety of UK magazines. Louise lives with her husband and children on the outskirts of Hull and loves her job as a Front of House Usher at Hull Truck Theatre, where her first play was performed in 2012. Follow Louise on Twitter @LouiseWriter and visit her website: louisebeech.co.uk.