Owen Thomas’ Lion Trees: Part One: Unraveling can be anointed any number of superlatives to showcase its brilliance; highly addictive, spectacular, and mind blowing will have to suffice. Thomas is a wizard of fiction, and his novel a captivating gem that engulfs the reader from the beginning. Whether it's the reliability factor, exhilarating plot arcs, or the deep allegiances built with the characters, this novel is brought to life in the readers’ mind. Lion Trees is primarily written from the perspective of the Johns family: Hollis, the patriarch by any definition; Susan, the abiding housewife for four decades; David and Susan, siblings who are polar opposites, and yet, strangely similar in their misery. The uniting factor in this often dysfunctional family is Benjamin—Ben—the youngest child, who, to many outsiders, is identified by his "illness," Down Syndrome. To the Johns, his naive innocence is not only endearing, but also provides a semblance of purity, a refreshing respite from the families’ tension-filled lives.
Other characters are front and center of considerably more action scenes; however, Hollis Johns, the way he lives and thinks, is the heart and soul of this story. His charm to outsiders, his impact on his family, who always seem to circle back to experiences involving Hollis, leaves an immense footprint on The Lion Trees and rekindles memories of the unforgettable Jay Gatsby. Hollis Johns talks up a storm, but seems to be fully engrossed—particularly in his retirement—in himself. He fully believes that as a once-prominent banker, he gave his family the lavish lifestyle, while rarely acknowledging his absence in the actual "living" portion. Spectacularly stubborn is an understatement when it comes to Hollis. His cool and collected demeanor, especially when his wife, Susan is trying to be a bigger part of his life is absurdly irritating. In fact, it's almost as if his study is his world, where he reigns superior and he can't be bothered to invest time in his subordinates. This attitude has caused a seemingly irreparable fracture between Hollis Johns and daddy's little girl, Matilda, better known as Hollywood actress Tilly Johns. Beneath this delusional mindset, however, Hollis Johns has a beating heart, and the potential for him to recognize human emotion once again will have readers glued to his character.
After spending her prime as housewife, Susan wants more from her husband and from life. The latent ferocity within her comes to life when she knows that, to find her identity, she must let go what she knows and even, to a degree, who she knows. She no longer wants to be the woman who organizes parties in celebration of her daughter's cinematic success, while her husband charms the audience and leaves early to introduce the gorgeous daughter of a business friend to potential networking opportunities.
Tilly Johns, Hollywood starlet and star of Peppermint Grove, is ascending. In the process of roping in the coveted role of Ivanova in famous director, Blair Gaine's Lion Tree, there seems to be something missing. She constantly thinks back to her relationship with her father and seemingly is comfortable with the negative energy that surrounds her life—usually in the form of romantic, albeit, temporary love interests like Gaines, co-actor Zac West, or script writer Angus Mann. Though she is more than a thousand miles away in Los Angeles, she can't seem to shake her Ohio childhood.
In the same vein, David Johns, history teacher extraordinaire, is a walking disaster. His self-worth is tied to his father, who has paid the downpayment on his house, among other favors. David strongly believes that he has failed his father in more ways than one, and this is instrumental in the functionality of their relationship. Good friend and colleague, Mark Shepherd hardly passes on an opportunity to poke fun of David's uptight style. In the end, what David really wants is to live life his way and earn his father's approval of that way. He can forget about any sort of approval, however, when he is caught in a maelstrom of misunderstandings surrounding the disappearance of one of his students. To add insult to injury, he finds himself defending his teaching methods, particularly his bashing of Christopher Columbus and the atrocities he may or may not have committed against Native Americans.
Without a doubt, The Lion Trees is a character-driven story. Every character is sharp, purposeful, and takes a life of his or her own. For instance, the entrance of Glenda Laveau, David's fire-breathing lawyer and Caitlin Carson (C.C) Lewis, a humanitarian with an edge, spices up the novel and forces other characters, particularly David and Officer Chuck North to push themselves even harder. Though there are many characters, it is almost as if Owen Thomas has a literary lens that zooms in directly on the characters in focus; there are no moments where a reader might wonder if a certain scene could have worked better without the specific character.
What makes this story a literary juggernaut is the fluidity of the prose and the impeccable pacing of the novel. Thomas gives readers just enough of each character's perspective, and as that carrot is dangling seemingly within reach, he switches gears. Don't let the length of the book deceive; there is never a dull moment, and the pages just seem to turn themselves. Ultimately, The Lion Trees is life personified. No man is either good or bad, but rather a tantalizing fusion of the two that makes life worth living.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review