Fierce Kingdom. Gin Phillips.

Phillips, Gin. Fierce Kingdom. Random House Canada, Toronto, 2017. F;9/17.

This is a thriller that takes place over a few hours, during which a woman and her  preschool boy elude killers terrorizing the zoo the lady and her son were visiting. I have no highlighted notes and just a few written sentences to refer to and didn’t intend to review this story, but want to say a couple of things about it.

We know (I did anyway) going in roughly what is about to happen, but the atmosphere as the mum and child head for the exit at closing time is simple and realistic with no detectable hint of what’s coming. Her sudden but at first partial recognition of death in front of their eyes is shocking and very effective. They flee back into the zoo. She communicates with her husband by phone but he can’t help directly, the region cordoned off by police. She outwits the killers several times. We get various points of view of what’s happening including a teenage girl who works in a small restaurant on site, an older woman who used to teach school in the town, and one of the bad guys who is retarded and/or autistic and under the psychopathic influence of the other two.

My main thought after reading this was to compare it to two other novels I didn’t like: Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, and Mahajan’s Association of Small Bombs. Fierce Kingdom is a story about terrorism and murder, which would probably qualify as one of the “culturally highly-valued ideas” I was talking about in criticizing The Best Kind of People. Why is this thriller so much less offensive than it, and Association?

It does exactly what it sets out to do: make us feel fear and frustration the woman experiences, and get what goes through her mind and the risks she has to take to keep her child, and her, safe. The author’s skill is to keep our suspenseful interest up in a horrifying nightmare that, thanks to tireless media attention, we have all surely imagined ourselves in the middle of. What this book doesn’t do is treat a terrorist-style psychopathic and stupidly pointless murder situation as if it were something we needed to be reminded about because we are trying to ignore it, and to presume we require a better understanding of how bad it is because we don’t know. And in thus serving a much-needed social purpose attract the attention of literary prize jurors.

Not at all bad for what it is. 8.9/8.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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