Henrietta Rose-Innes is a South African writer. She won the 2008 Caine Prize with her short story Poison after being shortlisted in 2007 with her story Bad Places.
When running writing workshops, I often use her story Sanctuary (which came second place in the BBC International Short Story Award in 2012) to show interesting ways to build dramatic tension, in this case with a series of gates as the protagonist is moving through farms in rural South Africa to the scene of the climax of her story. Her short story collection Homing is one of the best collections I have ever read. I’ve always thought she is a master at short story. I’d only read her novel Nineveh and felt she was stronger in the short story genre— that was until I read Green Lion.
Green Lion is set in Cape Town. We begin the story with Con, a thirty something year old man who has moved back to South Africa after spending time living in UK. He’s back with his richer, younger, and far more driven girlfriend Elyse, a dancer. His childhood friend, Mark has been mauled by a lion at the breeding park where the staff are trying to breed and eventually re-introduce black-maned lions to Table Mountain. Because of the mauling, the male lion must be shot and the breeding programmed scuppered, leaving behind only the lioness, Sekhmet. Mark is lying in the hospital in a coma.
Again, much like in that story Sanctuary, Rose-Innes shows in Green Lion that she is an absolute master at controlling plot to create the exact amount of dramatic tension and questions in the reader’s mind. She gives and withholds details and information like a magician. The reader is pulled in and not released until the last sentence, always yearning to get the answers to the questions she sets in your mind, but she is not so stingy as to leave you floundering and confused. You know enough—for now. The rest will come.
Con has had a troubled life, in many ways made worst by becoming friends with Mark. Mark was the popular, rich boy at school, Con the quiet observer. They become friends despite their differences, in many ways both envious of
Back in Cape Town, Con is asked to collect Mark’s property from the breeding centre and soon he is volunteering there himself. He becomes Shekhmet’s keeper and she, his obsession. When she escapes, he has already linked his fate with hers. He sets off up the mountain where his own demons live in an attempt to find her.
Con is a complicated character and Rose-Innes writes him with no pretence and no mercy, which is welcome. He is stumbling through the world, not really feeling anything. He doesn’t feel love for his girlfriend Elyse. He’s not sad for his friend Mark, or for Mark’s mother Margaret, left alone in her mansion merely going through the emotions of living. Con is aware enough to know there’s something wrong with him for not feeling, though. Rose-Innes gives us the information that created Con in drips.
As she does, this cold, distant character is revealed. It’s risky; some readers may not be able to continue with a protagonist that is slightly unlikeable. Rose-Innes is showing a human in all of his truth. Sometimes tragedy befalls a person and their reaction is only to get numb and keep walking. Truth, human truth, even this difficult, should be the goal of every novelist. Making it pretty for the reader is a trick most readers will resent. Rose-Innes never stoops to that. Green Lion is a commentary on the complex relationship we humans have with the wildness of nature. We want to be part of it and at the same time we want it fenced off, hunted, stuffed into safeness. Green Lion is an exceptional book. It has since gone on to be shortlisted for last year’s Sunday Times Prize. It was originally published by Umuzi in South Africa and rights have been sold to publishers in France, UK, and USA. Green Lion is Rose-Innes’ fourth novel.