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In this har­row­ing thriller, a mother and son are hunted in a zoo be­sieged by shoot­ers, writes Juliet Rieden.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - NEWS - Fierce King­dom by Gin Phillips, Pen­guin/Ran­dom House.

Joan is play­ing with son Lin­coln in the Di­nosaur Dis­cov­ery Pit when she re­alises clos­ing time at their lo­cal zoo is just five min­utes away and they need to be head­ing home. It’s a reg­u­lar haunt for the in­sep­a­ra­ble mother and son, a place where Joan loses her­self in thought, pon­der­ing the whats and ifs about her four-year-old’s fu­ture as his curls flop over his fore­head and he ob­sesses over the plas­tic ac­tion heroes he holds so dear.

If this scene were to open a movie you’d know some­thing sin­is­ter was about to un­fold, and so it is in Gin Phillips’ har­row­ing, ex­hil­a­rat­ing Fierce King­dom, a novel so filmic you can al­most hear the mu­si­cal crescendo.

As Joan and Lin­coln gather them­selves and head to­wards the exit they hear pops, small ex­plo­sions and then, more clearly, gun­shots. “I’ve spent plenty of time in our lo­cal zoo with my five-year-old. All that wan­der­ing from merry-go-round to flamin­gos to rep­tile house gives you plenty of time to day­dream about po­ten­tial novel ideas,” Gin tells The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly. “I knew I wanted to write a story about moth­er­hood, but I couldn’t set­tle on a par­tic­u­lar shape for the story. Likely be­cause of events in the news, one day I found my­self won­der­ing what I might do if a shooter burst into the zoo – where would I go?”

It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing thought but one many par­ents and school­child­ren have se­ri­ously con­sid­ered – es­pe­cially in the US. “Our chil­dren now go through ‘in­truder drills’ in school – what to do if ‘a bad per­son’ comes into the build­ing. Lock the doors, find a place to hide, be very quiet – this is some­thing my kinder­gartener comes home ex­plain­ing to me very mat­ter-of-factly. Pub­lic shoot­ings have be­come all too com­mon,” says Gin.

As Joan heads for the gate, she sees bod­ies on the ground and an armed man walk­ing into the fe­male toi­lets. Pet­ri­fied, she clasps Lin­coln and heads back into the zoo in search of a place to hide. Be­tween the shoot­ers and the an­i­mals there is a dou­ble whammy of dan­ger and pri­mal in­stinct mixed with a fierce ma­ter­nal pro­tec­tion that fires Joan as they’re hunted like prey through the zoo.

At the gen­tle cen­tre of this chill­ing roller-coaster is a study of moth­er­hood, the emo­tion which Gin de­scribes as “the love and plea­sure and sac­ri­fice and an­i­mal pull of it” that pushes this mother to fight against the odds. Some of the most pow­er­ful de­scrip­tions are of ear­lier mo­ments be­tween Lin­coln and Joan, while one of the most gru­elling is when Joan finds a baby hid­den in a rub­bish bin, pre­sum­ably by a trau­ma­tised mother.

What strikes deep­est, though, is the ut­ter plau­si­bil­ity of this hor­rific tale, which haunts you long after the fi­nal page.

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