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