"The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us."
Fierce Kingdom is an incredible novel. It's set in a zoo, near closing time. As Joan persuades her four year old son, Lincoln, to leave and they rush towards the exit, she hears something. Gunshots.
They run. They hide. In the next three hours Joan has to use all her ingenuity and instinct to keep them safe. This novel is a exploration of just what we will do to protect those we love.
I knew I would like this book. I was intrigued by the words zoo, child, run and hiding. I've spent a lot of time at our local zoo with my young children so my imagination was already running away with me before I'd even started reading.
What I didn't know was how this book would totally take over my life for the time it took me to read. And how stunned I would feel at the end.
This book is outstanding.
The chapters are headed with a time. We start at 4.55pm and move forward, each section only a few minutes on. The last chapter is 8.05pm. Three hours and ten minutes over 273 pages. That's almost real time isn't it? You are almost reading Joan's story in real time. You are literally there with her, for very minute, for every ticking second that passes and that was the one thing that I found really striking about this novel.
I generally read quite quickly, but this book took me a long time - well, at least as long as 3 hours and ten minutes. I couldn't read it quickly. I couldn't rush through what was happening. I couldn't skim on to see what decision Joan made next. I couldn't and I didn't want to. I had to be there with Joan; listening out for every creak, every breath, deliberating with her as she weighed up her options, waiting with her as watched in the hope for a text message to come, holding my breath for as long as she did in case her son made a noise.
This novel is powerful and it is intense. But it is also gripping and compelling in a way I did not expect. The story is told in third person which helps give the reader some distance from Joan and perhaps prevent it from becoming too overwhelming. Despite the set up of the story, the writing is calm, measured, reflective and deliberate. There is nothing gratuitous in this novel and even though it happens over a very short, specific period of time, it is not a page turner in the traditional sense. Just as Joan's dilemma's weigh heavy on her mind, the words weigh heavy on the page. I could not turn away from it. I couldn't put it down.
Joan is a great protagonist. She is a very good mother. The bond between her son Lincoln and herself are incredibly strong - perhaps only in this desperate situation do we really appreciate how well a mother can read her child, manipulate her child to cooperate and to what lengths she'll go to to protect her child. But she is flawed. She has thoughts that she is ashamed of and that she is confused by. She makes choices that don't sit well and that in normal circumstances may lose her sympathy from the reader but her maternal instinct is so palpable, so strong and so consuming that the reader is totally with her for every minute that ticks by.
This is an incredibly well judged novel. The characters are convincing and behave in a believable way as they deal with the horrific situation they find themselves in. The setting of the zoo is so unusual and gives so much scope for the author. It's a setting everyone can relate to and where even taking refuge and finding hiding places runs further risks because of the animals that share this space with the characters.
Ultimately Fierce Kingdom is a fantastic thriller. A book that will leave you breathless and which continually makes the reader wonder what they might have done if they were Joan. It is a very readable, compelling story that will grab you and hook you in quickly. It is also a novel that asks some difficult questions; that explores a deeper, more hidden level of themes which include motherhood, nurture, responsibility, choices, heroism and gun crime.
Fierce Kingdom is beautifully written. Phillips captures Joan's half formed thoughts, her flashbacks and glimpses of memory that haunt her as she contemplates her situation. Phillips captures Lincoln effectively and his dialogue works. She introduces a few more characters to diffuse the claustrophobic tension and change the point of view, allowing us to leave Joan for a few moments and see what else is going on.
I didn't find this book traumatic to read. I didn't feel it was sensationalised or predictable. I was more moved by the relationship I formed with Joan and with her maternal instincts. I was more moved by the prose and writers use of language.
My proof copy is riddled with underlined phrases, notes, asterisks and comments. I want to reread it all over again. It's an outstanding book. It is a thriller but perhaps not in the way you are expecting. It is emotional. It will stay with you.
I want to end with a quote from Gin Phillips as I think I'd rather use her words than attempt using my own inadequate ones.
"As a mother of a five year old, I realised that every story I considered writing seemed to lead back to motherhood. No other subject seemed quite so compelling or complex. No other subject had the power to move me, terrify me, or make me laugh quite as much. For me, the novel is ultimately about what it means to be a parent. More than that, it's a look at the ways we are bound together, whether we are strangers or family."
The PR material that accompanied my proof copy compares this novel with Room and We Need To Talk About Kevin. I would agree.
Fierce Kingdom is published on 15th June 2017 by Doubleday
Gin Phillips grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. After earning a degree in political journalism, gin worked as a freelance magazine writer for nearly a decade. She's lived in Ireland, Thailand, New York and Washington, D.C.
Fierce Kingdom is her debut thriller.
I am going to write a more detailed post about this book in the summer as it will make a fantastic book group read so look out for this. Keep up to date with my posts by signing up to receive my post via email, following me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk
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