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The Lion Seeker

3.65  ·  Rating Details  ·  506 Ratings  ·  110 Reviews
In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II

Are you a stupid or a clever?

Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger’s mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His moth
Hardcover, 576 pages
Published October 15th 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published February 26th 2013)
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Jon Snipper I don't think so. Mark Twain, in his Innocents Abroad wrote a pithy and humorous attack on writers who lard their paragraphs with foreign words. Quite…moreI don't think so. Mark Twain, in his Innocents Abroad wrote a pithy and humorous attack on writers who lard their paragraphs with foreign words. Quite funny and makes the point that keep the language to one only, with very few exceptions. This book, which I am only part way through could have done without the Yiddish or Afrikans, and transmitted the Yiddishkeit in some other fashion!(less)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,268)
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Steven Langdon
Nov 01, 2013 Steven Langdon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Kenneth Bonert writes in the Acknowledgements supplement to this powerful novel about his "profound gratitude" to his late grandmother, her memories of her Lithuanian home village of Dusat, and the Jewish community in South Africa that "so nourished her." It is clear that this book is a labour of love, inspired by family experiences and tragedies that shape the work's harsh narrative and complex interwoven texture.

Isaac Helger, five year old hellion as this story begins, is the central character
I hesitated to rate this book. It's set in South Africa with all the linguistic style it entails, and I don't particularly enjoy that. Whereas it's also a story of the world war ii (or so it says on the blurb), and I love stories of the war. It turned out to be surprisingly easy to read, but it wasn't a war story. Rather, it's a story of a young jewish man being brought up in South Africa, having been lucky enough to escape Lithuania when Hitler wasn't even a name. Consequently, he is one of the ...more
While it took a while for me to get into the book, eventually it became a book next to impossible to put down and it will likely end up being one of my favourite reads of the year.

The characters weren't exactly likeable ones, although certain parts of the book, when they were going through particular traumas and events, struck some emotional reactions for me. There were a few shocking moments, gut wrenching - I was surprised how the well the author managed to pull the reader into the story and
Lara Kleinschroth
Feb 05, 2013 Lara Kleinschroth rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: arc
This is from an ARC sent to me by the publisher.

It's amazing how many stories there still are from the time of World War II - so many different angles and perspectives, so many lives affected, all over the world. And how relevant and searing these stories still are today.

This one is about a young Jewish boy living in Johannesburg after emigrating there with his family from Lithuania. At a time when Jewish people the world over are about to be persecuted on the grandest scale, life for them in Jo
Dec 15, 2013 Rachel rated it it was amazing
Not sure if this book is for everyone but I totally enjoyed it. It is the European Jewish immigrant's story but this one is S Africa which might not be as know to Americans. I particularly enjoyed the use of Yiddish which was well translated.

It is a powerful book about love, family, sin and forgiveness.
May 01, 2015 Gerti rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Im ersten Teil erfahren wir, dass Isaac mit Mutter und Schwester aus einem kleinen Dorf in Lettland zu seinem Vater, der in Südafrika lebt und dort bereits eine Uhrmacherwerkstatt betreibt, auswandert. Was dazu geführt hat erfahren wir nach und nach im Lauf der Geschichte.

Isaacs Mutter Gitelle ist sehr ehrgeizig und will für ihren Sohn alles erreichen. So verbietet sie ihm Kontakt mit den Einheimischen Schwarzen, denn Weiße haben diese zu verachten um anerkannt zu werden.
Energisch vertreibt sie
Feb 20, 2015 Susan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction, judaica
This is a first novel and it is one of the most, perhaps the most, wildly ambitious piece of fiction I have ever read. It's deep. It's about good and evil and sin and forgiveness in such a deep and honest way. The main character is deeply flawed and yet I loved him. That fact alone gave the whole work a tenderness, vulnerability, questioning, genuineness and humanity. But it was a tough gritty book as well. I haven't read a book in a long time that had me on the edge of my chair and that I simpl ...more
Jim Puskas
Aug 18, 2015 Jim Puskas rated it really liked it
Shelves: adventure
Occasionally lyrical, often gritty, this is a big, angry story about a tough, resourceful young man growing up in a chaotic world populated by deeply damaged refugees, abused native tribesmen, crafty charlatans, brutal Nazi-influenced bullies and roughnecks of all kinds. What fascinating characters Bonert is able to portray and how complex, real and deeply human they are, with all their foibles, contradictions, self-delusions!
Plagued by misfortune and betrayal, Isaac pursues desperate dreams of
Read my review on New York Journal of Books first. Additional remarks that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.

Jewish books: The Lion Seeker portrays South Africa's Jewish community

South African born and raised Jewish-Canadian writer Kenneth Bonert's debut novel The Lion Seeker, which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is publishing today, is both a coming of age and an immigration story. In my New York Journal of Books review I write: "Most of Kenneth Bonert
Oct 15, 2014 MA rated it really liked it
Even though I thought this novel was too long (561-pages); it was a page-turner for me. The Lion Seeker is both a coming-of-age novel and an emigrant saga set in Jewish Johannesburg between the two world wars. The protagonist, Isaac Hegler, is the son of a working-class Lithuanian Jewish family. He is a rough redheaded boy fueled by a shameless audacity. Isaac cheats and claws he way out of poverty urged on by his demanding mother. Isaac is not a pleasant character, but you feel empathy and horr ...more
Dec 03, 2015 Charles rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 21, 2014 Lester rated it it was amazing I feel empty.
To think that this world..the humans of this planet..continue the atrocities year after year..decade after decade.
What things the human being is capable of is the scariest and most overwhelmingly frightening of all the animal kingdom.
I do have family from Lithuania..will I pass this book to my daughters to read?..YES yes yes. Though it is a 'story'..the realities are still there.
Thank you Kenneth Bonert.
Steve Quinn
Apr 03, 2013 Steve Quinn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow. I just finished reading this. I loved it. Beyond the wonderfully unfamiliar South African setting, what grabbed me were the language and the characters. The dialogue was so foreign yet true to life. And the characters were real. I won't try to say more than that because its really that simple. The story moved me, but the characters stuck with me. I haven't cared about characters that much in a long time.
Terry Heller
May 09, 2014 Terry Heller rated it liked it
Halfway through this book, I would have given it four or four and one-half stars, but the second half was looser and baggier than the first, and had a few digressions that were not worth the trip. It's a bildungsroman, set in the Jewish ghetto of Doorfontein, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where thousands of Lithuanian Jews settled in the aftermath of World War I. By coincidence, I'm good friends with a couple of people whose parents or grandparents would have lived in that community, so I had s ...more
Nov 06, 2015 Les rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book is about a Jewish family who left Lithuania to Johannesburg, South Africa before World War Two. The village ds of thing she where she lived was closer to the borders with Poland and Latvia. You realized right away what a change this was for her and her two children, the daughter Rively the oldest and Issac. The husband Abel was a watch maker and Gitelle was a homemaker and a fixer of all kind of things that she sold. The story centers around the son Issac. You see what happens to him al ...more
Jul 22, 2014 Bea rated it liked it
The writing was good, even though I don't like reading lots of dialect in the conversations because I don't understand exactly what they are talking about all the time. It was good enough that I wanted to keep reading it to find out what happens, but it was like watching a train wreck and not being able to turn away. The protagonist was very flawed, (realistic) and also very young when he did the worst to ruin the things most important to him. I wanted to shake him and say "look at what you are ...more
May 03, 2015 Wilma rated it liked it
Story of a family of Jews who immigrated from Lithuania to South Africa early in 20th century. Mother, a very strong character, has a disfigurement on her face. We don't learn exactly what or how she got it until late in the book. Father, who had shot himself in the foot to escape 25 years in the Russian army, was a watch repairman who worked out of his home. The main character is Isaac, their son. His mother wants Isaac to make something of himself but feels making money is more important than ...more
Mar 19, 2013 Hannah rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wow. WOW. Epic. The language will blow you away, of a time and a place you've never been to, but trust me, you want to go to. It's brutal. It will tear you up. But now that I'm done I miss it. I want to go back and I'm sad that I'll never again get to have a first time there. So if you read this (and you should, now, please), savor it.
Jennifer Blunt
Apr 24, 2015 Jennifer Blunt rated it liked it
I liked this book - I didn't love it. I wanted to love it but there were a few things that bothered me. First of all I had trouble getting into the rhythm of this book because of the multiple dialects used. This is just a personal preferences and other's may love it, but it just took me awhile to settle in. The rest of the book I enjoyed up until Part 3. It felt like it became a different book. First of all, I hated Isaac running off to war. There was literally no warning and I honestly thought ...more
Jul 29, 2013 Janet rated it really liked it
4.5 stars

Sprawling historical saga of a Jewish family that emigrates from Lithuania to South Africa in the early 1900s. Energetic writing, vivid characters, lots of conflict made the pages of this book fly by.
Feb 04, 2015 Mindy rated it it was amazing
I loved this book! I started off slowly, a little put off by the South African dialect and the unfamiliar Jewish immigrant setting (not Lower East Side!), and then became immersed in a powerful story with fascinating characters (Isaac, Gittele, Abel, Hugo, etc.). Learned a lot about 1930's and 1940's South African Jewish world and general S.A. society (and maybe a little more than I needed to know about auto repair). Couldn't put it down. Deservedly winner of National Jewish Book Award. Main cha ...more
Penny (Literary Hoarders)
I have to sit on this one for a bit before I can clearly give my thoughts. The evil that human kind can produce and participate in is saddening.
Feb 13, 2016 Wendy rated it it was ok
I don't really know how I feel about this book. I had a hard time connecting to the main characters, Issac Helger and his mother, Gitelle Hleger, then when I did eventually get to know them and care about them, the story didn't engage me as much as I thought it would. I cared enough to keep reading, but was eager to get it over with. The end of the book is powerful but only because of the statistics in the epilogue, which played only a peripheral role in the story.
I think I should recommend the
Barb Wiseberg
Jun 30, 2014 Barb Wiseberg rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-club-reads
I have always enjoyed books about Jewish immigrants, but most that I have read are about families moving to North America.

In the Lion Seeker, over many years we learn about Isaac and his family.

Poor Lithuanian Jews who move to Johannesburg in South Africa.

Beyond the strong story, Kenneth Bonert has an intuitive attention to detail, from the use of phrases in yiddish, to the dunking of rusks in hot tea. All the details were able to help me visualize the story, adding rich depth to each character.
huge saga of lithuanian jews escaping just in time and immigrating to south africa. very neat use of multiple languages: Yiddish, Afrikaans, zulu, hebrew, english, patois. so mom has a secret, from the 'old home', and son , through epic struggle, finally gives his mom want she wants. but she's dead. also, piercing ideas of 'race' and prejudice, how all look down on blacks, even jews, who are looked down on by all. sick.
has a great chase scene in the new 'homeland' created in 1940's in southern j
Jeremy Wong
Apr 28, 2015 Jeremy Wong rated it really liked it
A raw, uplifting and heartbreaking tale of a Jewish boy's childhood and adult years in pre-apartheid South Africa, THE LION SEEKER is one of the latest Jewish historical fiction novels that is sure to leave an imprint on you with some of its graphic imagery. WARNING: There are sections of the book which are not for squeamish people.
I was first notified about this novel when I read an interview with the author on Goodreads ( and later managed to find the
May 27, 2016 Benjamin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, yiddishkeit
This story of a Jewish South African was so intense I think it might trigger a mood disorder. It starts with a childhood, and here the language is mixed, like the language of migrant children. The literary English of the narration clashes powerfully with the Yiddish, Afrikaans and occasional Zulu of the dialogue. The effect reminded me briefly of another classic Jewish novel, Call it Sleep.

As the boy grows, and the world races towards the 20th Century's most famous Evils, the parallels between t
Mar 15, 2013 Rachel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: firstreads
I got this through a FirstReads Giveaway.

I don't think I ever would have read this had I not won it in a contest, but I am so, so glad I did.

The Lion Seeker is the story of Isaac Helger, who moved to South Africa from Lithuania in the 1920's, when he was four years old. The story follows Isaac as a child, running around the slum where he lives with his quiet father and frighteningly determined mother, as a teenager angry at a world that won't let him earn enough money to fulfill his mother's dr
Oct 31, 2013 Beth rated it really liked it
What happens to a son's "coming of age" when a Jewish family emigrates from Lithuania to "Joberg" (Johannesburg)South Africa and the parents bring their values. The mother wants her son not to be a "stupid". She wants her sisters to emigrate to be near her and for her son to eventually gift her with a house in a nice neighborhood. The father wants the son to settle into a trade like he has; he is a clock & watch repair person. The parents rejoice at times and continue to encourage Isaac, but ...more
Dec 24, 2013 Shannon rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
Isaac Helger’s parents fled Lithuania for South Africa after the First World War, seeking refuge from the same horror that left his mother’s face permanently scarred. The family settles into a working-class Jewish neighborhood in Johannesburg, but Isaac’s mother can only dream of her son earning money to save the rest of her family from dangers on the horizon in Lithuania. Faced with this task, Isaac’s life becomes a series of encounters, partnerships, relationships and secrets aimed only at suc ...more
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DC Public Library: The Lion Seeker - September 12-23 4 31 Sep 23, 2013 12:29PM  
  • The Crooked Maid
  • The Magic of Saida
  • The Empire of the Senses
  • The Hungry Ghosts
  • Emancipation Day
  • A Beautiful Truth
  • Lies, First Person
  • Watch How We Walk
  • Leeches
  • The Sound of Our Steps
  • Jacob's Folly
  • Shirley, Goodness & Mercy: A Childhood in Africa
  • The Hilltop
  • Matadora
  • I Am Rosemarie
  • The Blind Man's Garden
  • Close to Hugh
  • The Betrayers
KENNETH BONERT's work has appeared in McSweeney's 25, Grain, and The Fiddlehead. A former journalist, his work has appeared in the Globe and Mail and other publications. Born in South Africa, he is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants.
More about Kenneth Bonert...

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