'Confession of the Lioness' is a somber dance of hunter and hunted

Mia Couto's somber and masterfully wrought novel "Confession of the Lioness" examines a village in danger, a place where "the border between order and chaos was being erased."

Women of Kulumani, a small village in Mozambique, are being attacked by lions with increasing frequency. Miriamar, at 32, is the eldest and only surviving daughter of Hanifa and Genito. Her sister, Silência, is the lions' most recent victim. Desperate to end the attacks, the village sends for a hunter, Archangel Bullseye. But Bullseye quickly learns that staying ahead of danger in Kulumani means studying the men as much as the cats.

"Confession of the Lioness" sings with the musical nuance of a poem. The novel is told from alternating perspectives of Miriamar and Bullseye. Each begins with an origin story, a legend of his or her people's creation that sets a tone of magical realism. The two met 16 years ago, and when Bullseye returns, Miriamar wonders whether he'll be her escape. Miriamar's life has been marked by violence — not just violence against her sister but against all of the women in Kulumani. Neither is Bullseye a stranger to tragedy; his past is defined by his family's relationship to the hunt. He views his hunting excursion as a final chance, a goodbye.

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The two characters present stories that converge in an intoxicating dance of hunter and hunted. Couto, one of Mozambique's most prominent writers and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, relies on recurring motifs that lend the story the feeling of a dreamy allegory and connect to the secrets and danger of the community. For his characters, water is death. Eating is a way to consume the soul. Madness is a refuge, and writing is akin to the hunt.

Miriamar wants to escape the violent ways of the men in her village — by the river, her only possible route — but she conceives of the river as death. "I wanted to die by drowning," she says, "I have never wanted anything so much as that. To die in water is to return."

This is a dark tale, but Couto's skill in revealing information slowly — judiciously — allows us the realization that there is less of a difference between the savagery of man and beast than we'd like to think. Couto gives us only part of the picture at a time, and so "Confession" becomes an exercise in building tension and expanding the reader's understanding. What we think we know or can take for granted is transformed.

Women die by lion in "Confession," yet they die emotional deaths first at the hands of the men. As Couto begins to reveal the horrors faced by Miriamar and others, he challenges assumptions that readers may have made about women's lives. As one of the female villagers tells Bullseye, "[t]he biggest threat in Kulumani doesn't come from the beasts of the bush."

"Those we have killed, no matter whether they are strangers to us or our enemies, become members of our family forever after," Bullseye says. In "Confession of the Lioness," Couto entangles his characters in a primal cycle, joining attacker to victim. "We don't need enemies," says Miriamar. "To be beaten, all we need is ourselves."

Confession of the Lioness
A Novel

Mia Couto
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 208 pp., $25

Partington is a writer in Elk Grove, Calif.

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