Book Review – LION HEART by Justin Cartwright

Lion Heart by Justin CartwrightLion Heart Synopsis:

A contemporary tale of belief, identity, the nature of fiction and the power of romance, Lion Heart is Justin Cartwright’s most inventive and powerful work to date.

Richard Cathar was named after his father’s hero, Richard the Lionheart. Richard remembers his recently-deceased father, Alfric, as a delusional hippy, who saw himself as an intellectual and historian. Alfric believed that Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood had met and he found and lost a document which was to prove this.

In his father’s footsteps, Richard travels to Jerusalem where he falls deeply in love with an Arab Canadian journalist; a few weeks later she is kidnapped in Cairo. In the course of writing about the Crusades, Richard discovers that the True Cross, lost to Saladin in 1187, was recovered by a small band of Richard’s knights.

He embarks on a quest of his own, both to find the True Cross, and to discover whether or not everything in his father’s mind was a fantasy. It is an utterly original novel, exciting, romantic, funny, and profound. (Booktopia)


The strength of Justin Cartwright’s writing in Lion Heart struck me from the very beginning. A new author to me, his original and vivid descriptions of people and places drew me in. Dark and deadpan humour from his world-weary yet class conscious and highly opinionated narrator, Richard Cathar, really appealed to me also, although this character won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

One of the first of many passages that brought a smile to my face, was this…

This morning, on the first leg of a relatively pointless journey on the No. 30 bus and the Underground to buy some sausages, I saw a woman – a grandmother, but still a ditsy blonde – enter my carriage pushing a pram. She had that unmotivated optimism of my father’s generation. She was wearing a short ostrich cape and a yak-wool scarf. The cape had once been – I guessed – an electrifying green, but now, like the Statue of Liberty, it was verdigris. As the air of the train eddied, disturbed by the rushing anxious progress, it caused the cape to spring into a lively but syncopated dance: scores of antique ostrich feathers fluttered onto the floor and into the pram. I could not see the baby within; perhaps it was being smothered by the errant ostrich feathers or maybe it was soothed by their snow-fall touch. I wanted to speak to this woman who, I could now see as she bent over the baby, was wearing a Navajo silver belt low on her jeans. The silver discs on the belt bore important Native American messages. I got a glimpse of a puckered, tripe-textured stomach when her cheesecloth shirt opened for a moment. I wanted to know where she was going with her grandchild. Also I wanted to ask her if she knew that the cape was moulting: if she were going as far as Dollis Hill or Clapham Junction, it would be bald on arrival.

Cartwright conveys information to his audience via several mechanisms – Richard’s current day-to-day narrative, his reflective interludes, a series of letters written between himself and another character and in parallel to all of this we gradually read a paper written by Richard resulting from his research into the lost art of the Crusades.

Some elements of Lion Heart have a much lighter, more escapist feel than the titles ostensibly literary leanings. For example, Richard Cathar ends up in bed with people more often and more quickly than I’d expect from a character that is otherwise so deep thinking, ruminative and prone to introspection. While I found it jarring at times, I think this dichotomy is Cartwright’s attempt to incorporate the traits of the wayward hippie father that Richard so despised within his self-styled academic elitist persona – the age old question of nature or nurture?

The present day plot twists in Lion Heart also require the audience to take a leap of faith (foreshadowed by the word ‘inventive’ in the publisher synopsis I guess), but I felt the reader that buys a ticket is rewarded with an entertaining journey. The at times far-fetched and dramatic nature of Richard’s relationships and his quest to find King Richard’s Cross serves to balance out the quite dry yet informative recounting of Richard the Lionheart’s actions during the Crusades.


There is just so much packed into this ambitious novel it often feels like the many different elements are vying for both the author’s and his audiences attention. But, as is often the case in life, the things that shouldn’t work on paper, quite often combine to produce something intriguing and surprisingly engaging if approached with the right attitude.

If the moulting cape brought a smile to your face, Justin Cartwright’s Lion Heart may well be for you.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5

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BOOK DETAILS: Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright ( Booktopia | Kobobooks | Amazon )

Genre: Historical, Romance, Action-Adventure, Mystery, Drama, Thriller

Author Information: Justin Cartwright’s novels include the Booker-shortlisted In Every Face I Meet, the Whitbread Novel Award-winner Leading the Cheers, the acclaimed White Lightning, shortlisted for the 2002 Whitbread Novel Award, The Promise of Happiness, selected for the Richard & Judy Book Club and winner of the 2005 Hawthornden Prize, The Song Before It Is SungTo Heaven By WaterOther People’s Money, winner of the Spears novel of the year, and his most recent Lion Heart. Justin Cartwright was born in South Africa and lives in London.

Other reviews of Lion Heart: The Observer; The Guardian; Annabel’s House of Books

* My receiving a copy of this book from Bloomsbury did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions on this title.