Review: “The Lioness” by Chris Bohjalian

Despite knowing this story will end badly, we get attached to Barstow and her cronies. I blame Bohjalian. Throughout his bloody, often shocking jumble of twists and turns, he weaves life stories with such deftness, it’s impossible not to care how they end (or continue, as the case may be). I’m an animal-loving vegan who hates hunting, hot weather and the company of spoiled elitists. Yet there I was, breathlessly following these people like the hyenas who stalked — .

No, no. Let’s not spoil that one for you.

Katie Barstow was born to the Broadway musical producers Roman and Glenda Stepanov and made her stage debut at 12. Critics swooned, but she wanted to escape her monstrous parents. In adulthood, she changed her last name to Barstow and bolted from the family business to become a screen star in Hollywood, which kept her at least three time zones away from them.

Her publicist, Reggie Stout, sums up her appeal: “Katie Barstow was who she was not simply because she could act and the camera loved her (though both were true), but because she had an indefinable but almost corporeal specialness, the quintessence of dreams: a quality that transcended her beauty and her brains. It was an aura: She was damaged. You could sense it, you could feel it, you could see it.”

To Benjamin, a local porter and guest liaison, the movie star is a welcome contrast to most white foreigners on safari. On the first night, when her waterproof canvas bathtub springs a leak, soaking the floor of her tent, Barstow shrugs and apologizes; she knows Benjamin and his co-workers will have to boil more water.

“Over the years, he had seen other clients who would have become enraged,” Bohjalian writes. “They had been promised so much and were spending so much and came from such privilege that they managed to forget where they were: a world where a group of trained men created civilization in one small spot for a night, and then tore it all down, leaving as the only remnants tire tracks, flattened grass, a fire pit (or two) and the bones of whatever game they had cooked. Benjamin had had women scold him because they chipped their nails and men berate him because the dining tent lacked the right bourbon. Their behavior was always embarrassing and sometimes it was dangerous.”

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