Louise Beech's fourth novel The Lion Tamer Who Lost has the scope and feel of an epic. Switching between a troubled present and the events leading up to it, her story's setting ranges from the sun-dazzled pride lands of a lion rescue venture in Zimbabwe to a life-changing chance meeting in Hull.
In volunteering at the Liberty Lion Rehabilitation Project, Ben is fulfilling a long-held ambition. Yet it's clear from the outset that there's something he's running from. Africa is his refuge: the glorious sunrises, majestic wildlife and chance to start anew all overshadowed by his past.
Andrew is a writer of children's books working on his third novel, his day-to-day existence full of challenges. Growing up as the only child of a hard-working single mum, he's always felt intensely lonely. He has a silver box with an ill-fitting lid that he keeps his wishes in. Many have already come true, but there's one from his boyhood still waiting to be fulfilled.
Despite their difference in ages, these two men's lives are seemingly interlinked: they keep bumping into each other unexpectedly. Their friendship deepens but, while Andrew is at ease with his sexuality, Ben has not yet confided in his feckless father, scared of the reaction he might provoke.
So, their relationship is covert: one of tender snatched moments and outward pretence. It's only as their sacrifices become greater that the past begins to yield up its skeletons. And Ben and Andrew discover what has drawn them together is the very thing that could finally tear them asunder.
Beech writes with an eloquence that defies easy classification. Her narrative develops with initial stealth, throwing up so many questions that its direction is often a puzzle. At times the mood is dream-like and poetic, at others hard-hitting and unsparing. Her assurance with a complex structure defies any easy second-guessing. Though there are connections and revelations aplenty, she tantalises in what she chooses to reveal and what to hold back.
While one or two more minor players sometimes feel undefined, Ben and Andrew are always characterised in believable, involving detail. Their burgeoning relationship is handled with sensitivity and it's only when their bond is irrevocably established that the secrets tumble forth.
The consequences are devastating and tragic, only partially tempered by moments of bittersweet reconciliation and seeds of future hope. Ultimately, you come to care deeply about Ben and Andrew's story and I have to admit, more than once, that I may have had something in my eye.
The Lion Tamer Who Lost by Louise Beech is published in paperback by Orenda Books, many thanks to them for my review copy.