A Review of Mark Powell’s Lioness
by Chris McGinley
It’s rare to encounter a work with multiple, fully-developed characters, with clever and meaningful use of narrative time, and with a story that continually compels a reader forward. It’s even rarer to be able to create a sense of place that genuinely shapes characters, something formative to the action of a work–something that is simply there, always present, even when not expressly referenced. Indeed, what we’re talking about is more than mere “setting,” and even more than “mood.” Much more. In works like this, place itself becomes a character.
Mark Powell has written such a work. Lioness (2022, WVU Press) is a fantastic novel, the kind of thing one reads in college or graduate school, a species of literary fiction that’s a joy to dissect, to discuss, to puzzle out in a classroom, or in the English Department pub. It’s important to point out, however, that this this ambitious book is never difficult to read, never self-consciously complex, never a chore or an academic exercise.
On the contrary, Lioness is a helluva page turner.
The book tells the story of playwright and journalist David Wood and his artist wife, Mara, who live in rural Appalachia. It’s a good life in many ways, but after the death of their young son, Daniel, things begin to fall apart. Sometime later, after Mara has left the marriage, a bomb destroys a water bottling plant in the region, a corporation that may have knowingly produced toxic drinking water (another outside entity like so many others in Appalachia’s history). Once a committed environmental activist, Mara is killed in the explosion. . . Or is she? The novel follows her now estranged husband as he tracks down leads and begins to create a narrative in which his wife, and perhaps even his son, have survived.
Herein lies the beauty of the novel, or at least part of it: the guy might actually be right. There is evidence that perhaps Mara has cheated death, that she’s on the run somewhere. And now it’s up to David to find out. One of Powell’s strengths is his ability to enter David’s interior space. The once intrepid journalist can still track down details, can get the scoop, as it were. These portions of the novel—where David chases down sources, witnesses, and former acquaintances of Mara—are utterly tension-filled, like the stuff of a genre thriller. And yet, the reader cannot be certain as to whether or not our narrator is reliable, whether or not he’s delusional about the narrative he’s created. There are several factors that may contribute to some confabulation: his emotional instability, the reliability of his sources, and not the least of which, his desperate desire to see things as he wishes they could be. Such writing is anything but typical of the genre thriller. In places, Powell is as much poet as novelist.
There’s another critical element to the novel here, the character of Chris Bright, a local legend for the eco warfare he wages against corporations and extractive industries in the region, those like the water bottling plant. Bright is fascinating character, and again, one whom Powell fills out in stunning passages that fully shape the character vis a vis the mountain wilderness in which he was raised. In one memorable passage, Powell captures the early awe Chris experiences in the wilderness of the hills, a young boy enrapt with everything he encounters there:
The next year he saw his first bird—saw, he meant, with his true eye—a little male northern cardinal with its red body and black mask and if he was running, all at once it was without any connection to the earth, he was above it. He was, at least for those moments alone in the fields and pastures and woods, flying.
Bright complicates things not only because of his role in the past lives of David and Mara, but, as David discovers, in his relationship to Mara explicitly, a union difficult to understand in its multiple facets. David uncovers secrets, yes, but even then, there are some certainties that may never be available to him. In fact, Powell constructs beautiful ambiguities everywhere.
The figure of the lioness is one such pleasant enigma. Throughout the novel characters encounter the Mountain Lion, a creature both a part of regional folklore and the real world. At times, we’re not even certain if the animal is actually present in a scene, or if it only exists in a character’s consciousness . . . which can be even more dangerous (but perhaps more beautiful). The lioness is a metaphor, no doubt, but a complex one that readers should puzzle over on their own. In Powell’s capable hands, the image always strikes us, always provokes us, even scares us at times. Does it suggest a primeval state, some pristine Appalachia before industry, before humans? Is a protective female? Or is it a symbol of something unattainable? Maybe all of these. Maybe not.
Powell’s Lioness is a fantastic book, a work about love, marriage, desire, hope, and loss. It’s ambitious, but never overreaching. As I said, it’s a book to be discussed with intelligent readers, over a beer or a glass of wine. Something relished because once you’ve finished it, you’ll never again experience it for the very first time.
And that’s a sad and beautiful fact.
Read Chris’ other work here at Reckon:
Horror in the Hills: A review of C.W. Blackwell’s Song of the Red Squire
Brutal and Beautiful: A review of Charles Dodd White’s Lambs of Men
Sin & Righteousness in Appalachia: A review of M. A. Cody’s Twilight Reel
The Full Horizon of Loss: A review of David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn
Fiction: The Screech Owl
Chris McGinley is the author of Coal Black (Shotgun Honey Books, 2019). He also writes for LitHub and other outlets. He lives with his wife in Lexington, KY, where he teaches middle school.