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Book Review: Iris Mwanza goes into 'The Lions' Den' with a zealous, timely debut novel for Pride

Grace Zulu clawed her way out of her village and into college to study law in the Zambian capital Lusaka.
This cover image released by Graydon House Books shows "The Lion's Den" by Iris Mwanza. (Graydon House Books via AP)

Grace Zulu clawed her way out of her village and into college to study law in the Zambian capital Lusaka. Now, at the end of 1990 and with AIDS running rampant, her first big case will test her personally and professionally: She must defend dancer Willbess “Bessy” Mulenga, who is accused of “committing acts against the order of nature.”

Iris Mwanza’s debut novel, “The Lions' Den,” is as zealous, smart and fresh as its main character.

But, while Grace is a talented and hardworking lawyer, she’s also hot-headed and naive. She can’t see the forest for the trees beyond her own righteousness, and wouldn’t know diplomacy if it smacked her in the face — something that makes the character and the novel verge into frustrating and tiresome.

Fortunately, we have characters like Grace's wise and eclectic landlady, Ms. Njavwa, who was a freedom fighter in Zambia’s struggle for independence. Ms. Njavwa and Grace’s discussions over dinner are punctuated by interruptions from her aptly named dogs David and Goliath, who eat better than Grace did in her home village growing up.

Food becomes a refrain in the novel, one of the many ways we see disparity in Zambia and between the characters, whether because they're rural, gay, female, foreign, poor or some other “other.”

Yet the heavy topics come with bits of levity, which are sorely needed, especially when everything seems to be going wrong for Grace. Sometimes she only has herself to blame, but there's no denying the odds are severely stacked against her in conservative Christian, early-1990s Zambia, when political unrest and government corruption festered after nearly 30 years of increasing authoritarianism under the country’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda. Grace must learn to work with people and navigate the system that has become riddled with bribes and favors if she has any hope of helping Bessy and holding police to account.

Alongside the history and politics embedded throughout the novel, religion also plays a huge role in the story, as the title implies. “The Lions' Den” opens with the Biblical passage in which Daniel notes that he hasn’t done God nor the king any wrongs.

Grace's ally and mentor, Father Sebastian, provides one type of religious view of the issues. The Christian colonialism dictating the law and societal opinions of LGBTQ+ people and women provide another. And Grace challenges all of it.

Then, in the final stretch, we finally get into courtroom drama mode; the culmination of Grace’s efforts that could have far-reaching effects beyond Bessy and his family.

On her website, Mwanza — who herself has worked as a lawyer in Zambia — says her goal was "to write a page-turner that doesn’t shy away from big societal issues." She's off to a great start. Her writing is well-versed and skilled beyond what you'd expect in a debut. While the pacing didn’t hit quite right for me, the characters and subject matter are compelling enough to push through any snags. Particularly with the novel's timely release as Pride month comes to a close, “The Lions' Den” is an important story told with nuance that makes it excellent for book clubs and sparking thoughtful discussion.


AP book reviews:

Donna Edwards, The Associated Press