A psychological, philosophical and political family saga that takes numerous literary risks.
Matilda Johns’ seen-it-all voice, delivered via internal monologue because she’s in a coma, introduces an inner story—The Lion Tree by Angus Man—within the outer story of Owen’s novel. Traveling back through the years to President George W. Bush’s second term, Matilda recalls starring in the movie version of The Lion Tree. At that time, she was known as Tilly Johns, and she was a Hollywood bombshell. Using the fictional Angus Mann narrative, Owens sculpts a cerebral page turner within the sprawling primary text. The main story is a baton passed from Tilly to her self-deprecatingly hilarious, history-teacher brother, David; to their mother, Susan; to Susan’s husband, the self-important Hollis Johns. David barrels past caution with good intentions as he attempts to rescue a student from juvenile delinquency; he finds himself embroiled in a legal case that casts him as a druggie, kidnapper and rapist. Susan launches herself into grass-roots political activism as Hollis becomes infatuated with an enigmatic young woman. The pearl of wisdom found in the inner novel suggests that most people will repeat an earlier, scarring story in order to validate their identity. The gamble of incorporating real-world, modern-day politics into fiction works well. At times, the political angle seamlessly buoys David’s thoughts and gives them additional relevance, and other times, it distracts from characters’ journeys. The ending, unfortunately, relies too heavily on lengthy stretches of dialogue to dispel mysteries introduced too late in the plot.
On the whole, a powerful and promising debut.