*****Fierce Kingdom

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photo: Josh Henderson, creative commons license

By Gin Phillips – If you want to write a psychological thriller as compelling as this Gin Phillips debut, here’s how. If you’re a parent—or can imagine being one—construct your “worst nightmare” scenario, including in it all the times you thought about, as most parents do, how you would extricate you and your child from deadly peril.

Then think about all the ways your scenario could go wrong, your possible misjudgments, the quirks of your and your child’s behavior that spell possible doom.

Once you’ve depleted your daily allotment of adrenaline with this imaginary exercise, write it all down. Few child-in-danger novels set out to immerse themselves in the relationship between mother and child as Phillips has. It’s that relationship that brings the novel its relentless, overwhelming power.

Phillips has done that here in an edge-of-your seat thriller told mostly from the acutely observant third-person point-of-view of a young mother. Devoted, attentive mom Joan is hurrying her four-year-old son, Lincoln, out of the zoo at closing time. As they near the exit, she realizes they were wrong about the noises they’ve been hearing. They weren’t firecrackers or popping balloons, they were gunshots, and people lie dead and dying. Where to hide? How to hide, when Lincoln is averse to whispering and to having his wishes more-or-less met upon request?

The action takes place in the three hours, ten minutes from 4:55 to 8:05 p.m. one weekday, so, in a way, it unfolds before you in real time. The zoo/park setting in an unnamed American city is meticulously rendered, introducing not only the animal exhibits, but also the miscellaneous trappings—the snack court, the carousel, the circulating train and, in the season of Joan’s nightmare, the cheesy Halloween decorations.

The behavior and preoccupations of a four-year-old are so accurately described, you know this child. You can absolutely believe in every mistimed, too-loud complaint, every desire that needs immediate attention, and every incipient wail. You sympathize with Joan trying to comfort and control her son and be a positive parent, to reassure not terrify him. She knows him so well, she anticipates the best ways to assuage his discomforts. Unfortunately, what will work can be risky. At times, the tension is so high, you may need to take a break. (I did!)

Lincoln is a child who follows the rules. That mostly works, but Joan must finally tell him, “The rules are different today. The rules are that we hide and do not let the man with the gun find us.” The police have arrived—she’s heard the sirens—but the gunfire continues and they don’t seem to have penetrated the zoo itself. Why not? This delay is one of the few lapses in the novel’s believability.

So, if you write down a terrifying story such as that, you will have done what Phillips has done. Oh, and you need to throw in a moral dilemma or two, you must capture the thinking of a bright, inquisitive child without becoming saccharine or tedious, you have to create compelling secondary characters, and you must have the writing chops of a serious, thoughtful author. In other words, you must be Gin Phillips.

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