Bonnie Nadzam’s Lions is a book which relies heavily on the building up of atmosphere; although perhaps this is the wrong word, as atmosphere is entirely what is lacking in the eponymous town, down to its last few inhabitants and offering no entertainment beyond speculating on who might be the next to leave. I started reading Lions waiting for something to happen, but soon realised that the lack of action is the point; it is this very absence of events which helps the reader to identify with Lions’ residents.
Beginning with the death of John Walker, Lions focuses on the impact of this loss on the town; Walker was the centre of a peculiarly enigmatic mystery which continues to fascinate the other characters after his death, but the novel gets its main thrust from the relationship between Gordon, John’s son, and Leigh, whose plans to get the hell out of town are torpedoed by Gordon’s evasive behaviour. Nadzam builds around these protagonists a cast of intriguing characters, although I didn’t find them sufficiently distinctive to always remember who was who; perhaps, as with the lack of palpable action, this is a deliberate way to emphasise the lack of change and variety in the town.
The idea of stasis is crucial in Lions; it is the idea of nothing ever changing which drives Leigh to seek a future elsewhere, but the uneventful life seems almost intoxicating to Lions’ other residents. Once I stopped waiting for something to happen, I came to really enjoy Nadzam’s evocation of this unchanging life. The physical descriptions of the solitary diner and abandoned gas station create subtle symbolism; although love and friendship are central to the novel, there’s also something creepy about the isolation of Lions in relation to the rest of the world, especially when combined with the mystery of John, and later Gordon’s trips elsewhere.
Lions is slight in length but deceptively deep; I found myself missing it when I’d finished it and, of all the books I’ve read this year, its setting is one of the most effective in that I can still close my eyes and picture it a few weeks after reading. It’s a gentle but affecting read; I’ll be looking out for more from Bonnie Nazdam in the future.