Author: Gin Phillips
Published: July 25th, 2017
Length: 352 Pages
Trade Paperback ISBN: 9780525492689
On an ordinary day, Joan and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are at the zoo. It is getting close to closing time and they can hear something like fireworks going off nearby. As they hurry back towards the entrance to the zoo everything changes. Joan sees the man with the gun. She picks up her son and she runs. She doesn’t stop for anyone because in this moment only he matters. For the next three hours Joan is forced to use every instinct and every ounce of maternal knowledge to keep her son safe. Because there is more than one gunman in the zoo. And they are being hunted.
To the immense credit of this novel, I read it entirely in one sitting. The prose flows in such a way that it never lets up and you feel a constant sense of the pressures and fears that are closing in around her. This is doubly worthy of praise when you consider that the first half of the novel takes place almost entirely in a single spot. Joan and Lincoln don’t do much in the sense that they aren’t getting into hand-to-hand combat with the gunmen or running with them hot on their heels. But it feels like an immense amount of stuff is happening every minute for Joan as she struggles to keep herself attentive and focused. She reminds herself constantly that “she must be here, completely here” (37). But there is more to the story than simply the two of them sitting in the same spot, and the novel is packed with plenty of suspenseful moments.
I would go so far as to describe this novel as one in which all of the fat has been cut clean off. Nothing happens that does not need to happen and nothing is really shown that isn’t necessary to show. This does mean that certain elements of the situation are never fully examined or revealed, though this never feels like a detriment to the narrative. At it’s heart it is about the relationship between Joan and Lincoln and how she is able to navigate the spectrum of know-how and responsibilities essential to motherhood while faced with life-and-death consequences. The prose is straight and to the point and manages to do a surprising amount of character work given the limited amount of space in which to do it. Though we never leave the zoo and only follow Joan for what is, no doubt, the worst three hours of her life, we learn a massive amount of information about her, her husband, her relationship to her son, her family history, her past, etc. Joan’s brain is working at incredible speeds to stay on top of her situation, but you never feel like you’re being left behind.
The relationship between Joan and her son is the crux of this narrative, but there are other characters in the zoo that eventually impose themselves onto Joan and Lincoln’s narrative of survival. And these moments are some of the most intense and shocking of the novel. Time and again Joan is faced with the question ‘what will you do to protect your son?’ in a way that is, often heart-wrenchingly, not hypothetical. Despite it’s subject matter, I did find that Fierce Kingdom never pushes itself to the absurd or the inherently grotesque. What it does do, and do quite well, is present an almost icy cold reality of facts and consequences. Sometimes it feels like the greater threat to Joan and Lincoln’s safety is not the men with guns but the other people hiding from them. Thus, it feels like the more essential question for Joan isn’t ‘what will you do to protect your son?’ so much as ‘what happens to your moral responsibility to others when they threaten your child, intentionally or otherwise?’
Among its many striking elements of Fierce Kingdom, it is worth noting the setting. The zoo lends itself to a disconcerting atmosphere. First, there is the disconnect Joan keeps getting thrown up against between the obviously fake exotic elements of the zoo and the clearly exotic (or perhaps alien is a better word) animals that are caged within it. Then there is the fact that the zoo feels like a space apart from the city but signs of the city are all around Joan and Lincoln. Time is constant, with no chapter numbers just the minutes ticking by as their dire situation continues. But the grounding in time does nothing to alleviate the disconcerting effect of their displacement in space. Furthermore, the objects within the zoo take on a new sinister characteristic: phones are dangerously bright and loud, vending machines are sources of food but also frighteningly exposed, buildings seem obvious choices for safety but would also be obvious places to look for the hunters. Indeed, Joan and Lincoln seem to be shoved into a primal existence of hunter and hunted that manifests itself in the both real and un-real space of the zoo.
Fierce Kingdom manages to highlight an inspiring heroism in a terrifying scenario. Joan is not a superhero like the toy Thor or Iron Man or Captain America that her son carries around. She is not loud and bright and violent. But the novel is about a very particular kind of heroism that is rooted deep in Joan. It is quiet and pervasive and immensely strong. And I would say those three adjectives could as easily describe Joan’s heroism as the novel itself.