The Lions' Den: A Novel

Image of The Lions' Den: A Novel
Release Date: 
June 25, 2024
Graydon House
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“Mwanza’s writing captures her own passion as well as that of her central character.”

Iris Mwanza’s novel The Lion’s Den is both a fascinating character study and a harrowing picture of the virulently anti-gay sentiment and laws in Zambia.

The novel takes place in 1990, the last year of Kenneth Kaunda’s long reign as autocratic president of Zambia. Grace Zulu, a young lawyer, is assigned a pro-bono case that eventually exposes the homophobia and corruption of the highest levels of Zambian government. She is to represent Wilbess “Bessie” Malenga, a 17-year-old boy who has been arrested for an act of “Carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” punishable by up to 14 years in prison. When she meets the boy, he already shows signs of having been brutally beaten by the police. Bessie is murdered in prison before Grace can represent him in court and she has to deal with official attempts to cover up the crime. Continuing to fight for justice for the boy means waging a battle against powerful forces in the government and risking physical harm and loss of her job.

Grace is a born fighter. Raised in a poor village, she refused the marriage her mother arranged for her and run away. Thanks to her father’s gay best friend, who has suffered at the hands of homophobic villagers, she has the money to go to law school. Grace is smart and hard-working, but she has trouble controlling her temper. She also will not give up on a fight for justice, even when there seems to be no way of winning. Along the way, she also has to fight against sexism and urban discrimination against country girls like herself.

Author Iris Mwanza, a former lawyer, is as ardent a supporter of gay rights as her central character. She shows how hatred of homosexuality permeates every aspect of Zambian society, yet there is a gay subculture, even though its members have been brought up to hate themselves and to hide their sexual orientation. AIDS is killing many of the men who have sex with other men, yet the kindest men Grace encounters are suffering from HIV-related infections.

Mwanza’s writing captures her own passion as well as that of her central character. The end of the novel hints that perhaps there will be more novels featuring the feisty Grace Zulu. Her reappearance would be most welcome.