FIERCE KINGDOM

One of my favourite movie scenes—it’s iconic— is from James Cameron’s Aliens. It’s near the end, when Ellen Ripley, a towering character, emerges from behind giant pressure doors, driving a power loader that gives her the appearance of a mechanical monster, looks straight at the hideous Alien Queen whose ferocious, acid dripping jaws are threatening Newt, the young girl Ripley has taken into her heart and will not abandon, and rages: “Get away from her you b**ch!”

I don’t know that there’s anyone, anywhere who hasn’t been pulled right out of their seat during that scene at the movie’s climax, which defines Ripley and is a gargantuan display of maternal fierceness, but I feel sure that every mother who has ever seen it has wanted to howl along with Ripley and felt absolute kinship with her in that moment.

This is the emotion that Gin Phillips mines in Fierce Kingdom, her third novel for adults.

The plot is brilliantly simple. Joan, a married lawyer, and her four-year-old son, Lincoln, are in the habit of ending each afternoon by spending some play time together. On this day, they have chosen the zoo, their preferred haunt. We find them tucked away in The Dinosaur Discovery Pit, which “is always damp and cold, never touched by the sun, but despite the sand on her skirt and the leaves stuck to her sweater, this is perhaps [Joan’s] favorite part of the zoo—off the main paths, past the merry-go-round and the petting barn and the rooster cages, back through the weedy, wooded area labeled only WOODLANDS.”

 It’s 4:55 p.m. Mother and child are in a place they know intimately and it’s the perfect spot for Lincoln to play with his bag full of mismatched superhero figurines. Like most children his age, he’s able to spin stories faster than a tornado. The world of make believe is always just a blink away and often entangled with his “real” life.

There’s good storytelling by Gin Phillips here. Even though the reader knows this is a setup, it’s hard not to be drawn into this idyllic scene. There’s a lovely intimacy between mother and child: the private language and references that outsiders wouldn’t understand; the skips and leaps of Lincoln’s boundless imagination that his mother has no trouble following; Joan’s almost paranormal ability to decrypt every sound, hiccup, sigh or movement emanating from Lincoln.

San Diego Zoo entrance

But Joan has also heard unusual sounds: cracks, pops and what might be small explosions. Between 5:23 and 5:32 pm, their world is turned upside down. On their way out of the zoo, just before closing time, Joan spots a gunman near the public bathrooms and understands that he’s intent on murder—and that he’s already killed.

Run! Find safety! Protect Lincoln! Protect Lincoln! Protect Lincoln! Go-go-go!

 From this point on, Joan is driven by a single imperative: Lincoln’s survival. Because she’s so familiar with the zoo’s layout, she and Lincoln are able to rush to the vacant porcupine pen and stay out of sight. Thus begins a period of anguished waiting, of biding their time, during which Joan remains in a state of hyper-vigilance, even as she shelters her son from the fear and anxiety of this terrible situation—from the reality of it.

 

In this taught narrative that unfolds over a three-hour period, Gin Phillips does a marvelous job maintaining the tension. A lot of this is achieved by the author’s deft expression of Joan’s inner turmoil— the stream of her thoughts, which are very focused at first, then pinball unpredictably from the present to the respite of memories and sometimes even banalities—and which finally become so narrow that, for all intents and purposes, Joan is now borderline psychotic.

It’s at this point that two other characters enter the story more forcefully: Mrs. Powell, a retired school teacher, and Kailynn, the teenage girl who works part-time at the zoo. They allow Phillips to pull back, and offer a different view of all of the people enclosed side by side with the animals in the zoo, and to begin to explore such questions as what sends young men on such suicidal rampages, and to consider the hows and whys of children who go wrong and can’t be pulled back from the brink; what triggers the fall that leads to delusion, nihilism, despair and death.

By 7:12 pm: the stress hormones that have been coursing through Joan’s body—the cortisol and adrenaline—that have kept her alive and kept Lincoln safe, have also taken their toll. This nightmare of being preyed upon has changed her, and set Joan on a path that mirrors that of her stalker—the imperative to survive has overwhelmed her brain and given her tunnel vision. She is now relying on the primitive parts of herself: instinct and an unnameable drive that makes her push relentlessly forward.

By 8:10 pm, her struggle is over.

Fierce Kingdom lives up to its promise. It’s an electrifying, honest presentation of the merciless calculations made by one mother for the protection of her child. I read the novel in two days, and one of them was a workday.

 

“There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”- Stephen King

Ellen Ripley protecting Newt, from the movie Aliens

 NOTE TO READERS:

 While reading Fierce Kingdom, I couldn’t help thinking about another book, Chris Cleave’s Incendiary,  a mother-son novel as well, in which the boy is also four years old—except that in Chris Cleave’s beautiful, pain-filled novel, the mother is not with her son (at the time of his violent death) and is thus not able to do anything to protect him. Her story is one of failure and guilt. It is, in a sense, the flip side of Gin Phillips’ narrative.

What is it about four-year-olds?  It’s the age of a small child on the cusp of entering the “real world” of the schoolyard and its influences and injustices, and of leaving behind the shelter of a life encircled almost exclusively by parental love. For many parents, it triggers an unexpected feeling of loss, and of flickering grief.

This coincidence is telling, I think.

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman With Dead Child, 1903
etching

Other Gin Phillips novels :

 

 

 

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