Review: Lioness

Reviewed by Josie Shapiro

Author: Emily Perkins. Reviewer: Josie Shapiro.The fifth novel by Emily Perkins, Lioness showcases her skill, charged by a crisp, steady voice punctuated with powerful insight which lures readers into a beguiling tale of a woman unravelling. July 2023 release

Lioness is an ominous novel, about femininity, wealth, inequality, duplicity, pretence, seduction and family. The fifth novel by Emily Perkins, Lioness showcases her skill, charged by a crisp, steady voice punctuated with powerful insight which lures readers into a beguiling tale of a woman unravelling.

Therese Thorn, founder of the aspirational Therese Thorne Homewares, began life as Teresa Holder from Upper Hutt. Teresa was uncultured, a woman who wanted more, and later sold ‘want’ via corduroy bean bags and scented candles at her homewares store. A fortuitous meeting with property developer Trevor Thorn was the ticket to a new life. First through his investment into her business and then marriage. She got it all, the surname with all its associated glamour, and, for better or worse, his children from a previous marriage: Rob, Caroline, Annabel, and Heathcote.

There’s a Succession-like sensibility about the Thorne family, where money has become a substitute for love.  But at first Therese enjoys this world of wealth. Who wouldn’t enjoy a penthouse in Wellington, a holiday home in Martinborough, use of the family homestead in the Sounds every Christmas and invites to the right parties with the right people? Who wouldn’t enjoy having enough, having more than enough, being one of the ‘lucky’ ones who get ‘to have’ and, to assuage any guilt, also get ‘to give’?

Lioness suggests there will always be a price to pay because for Therese, every incident feels like an omen: Therese thinking of her neighbour Claire while she’s having sex with Trevor; an emergency during landing on a plane; a biker gang roaring past them on the road. Rob putting his foot through a rotten board on the verandah at the homestead in the Sounds; John, Annabel’s husband, nearly drowning. But no one believes anything truly terrible should befall them, least of all Therese. After John is rescued, Trevor roars to the sky, in another echo of Logan Roy: ‘Do your worst! We’re the fucking Thornes!’

However, soon the worst is realised. An investigation, looking into the council approvals for Trevor’s hotel development on the Wellington waterfront, stalls progress (was his project favoured over a social housing development and what part did Trevor play in this?). Very soon, cracks start to appear elsewhere. In their marriage, their family, in the mask Therese has worn all this time to fit in.

Lioness burrows into the many ways we perform. Therese is constantly concerned about being ‘found out’. When she met Trevor, she ‘played the blank slate, which no girl is;’ she loves to tidy for reasons beyond cleanliness: ‘it gave me pleasure to clean a space so it looked as though I’d never been there.’ The performance of womanhood, the novel asserts, is partly self-erasure.

 During the looming investigation, Therese befriends her charismatic neighbour, Claire. In an unsettling exchange Claire details a sexual dream she had; she then apologises with the explanation: ‘I seem to have lost my filter.’ Claire’s denial of pretence and authentic presentation appeals to Therese. No filter. Claire has recently ‘swapped roles’ with her husband, freeing herself from the emotional labour of motherhood and the trappings of womanhood. Claire covers the mirrors in her apartment, she gives away all her furnishings. She builds a stage and it’s on this stage that Therese encounters ‘the zone,’ a dance space that frees her mind and promises a type of wildness that will allow her true self to flourish. 

Only what becomes of a woman when she casts aside social expectations? A woman who is intimate with the wrong people? Does she turn into a lion, like Atalanta from Greek mythology, referenced several times in Lioness? Or is she rendered toothless and returned to her place?

Perkins grapples with a heady mix of ideas and a swathe of characters, building a house of cards for Therese and the Thorne empire. As a reader, you can never be quite sure which card will fall first or if any will remain standing.

 Reviewed by Josie Shapiro