"A Guide to the Birds of East Africa"
(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew NOV 18, 2008)
"With a sigh he put down the pad and pencil. So many things he should never have done. He should never have issued the challenge, he should never have told them about Rose Mbikwa, he should never have written her that invitation. His sigh became a groan. He should never have been born."
As you wing into the fictive delights of Nicholas Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, you might wish to keep the Princeton Field Guide illustrations of these colorful aviary wonders at your elbow. Mr. Malik and others in the novel describe spying (or hoping to, at least) godwits, puffbacks, flamingoes, hadadas, African spoonbills, and a host of other birds roosting, flitting and coasting over Nairobi, Kenya. Their enthusiasm for ornithology rubs off.
But in this Guide, the feathered friends aren't the main spectacle. Human rituals -- particularly mating -- are. Obligatory preening, bravado, and plotting ensue as unassuming "Small Brown Job" Mr. Malik faces off with Harry Khan, a wealthy, flamboyant flamingo type, for the privilege of asking Rose MacDonald Mbikwa, the Scottish-born widow of a Kenyan Parliament (and opposition) member, to the prestigious Hunt Club Ball.
Honest, "short, round, and balding" Mr. Malik wouldn't dream of cheating on their wager to see who can spot the greatest number of different bird species in a week, even when, by chapter 25, the tally stands at Khan, 108 species, and Malik, 49. Khan, willing to throw some money around for victory, hires two Australians to guide him and takes day trips to Mount Kenya and other bird-rich locations. Mr. Malik (as he's referred to throughout the novel) sticks unimaginatively closer to home, at least initially. Still, setbacks beset him. For instance, his car and his bird list notebook are stolen. Then, when he finally ventures farther away, he must, with heart in mouth, flee threatening Somalis brandishing AK-47s who want to forcibly conscript his young tribal friend and guide, Benjamin. Nevertheless, this somewhat bumbling widower whose family business produces Jolly Man cigars finds an oasis of bird life by chapter 34. Can Mr. Malik, sometimes seeming too much the innocent, catch his rival and even win? Will the wager even matter? Or will the female of the species have her own ideas?
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa invites comparison with Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies Detective Agency series about Botswana, but it feathers its own nest. Its narrator is a bit of a wag, arguably another continent's Mark Twain. An example of his mischievousness: "I was brought up in the Church of England, but it wasn't until I went to Kenya that I first met God. It was my friend Kennedy who introduced us." He is unidentified but can be interpreted as a fictional version of Drayson. Among other things, he supplies back stories for the characters and for some of the landmarks and eating and drinking establishments (such as the Asadi Club -- "where a fellow goes if he is not white nor black, but brown" -- that Mr. Malik and his friends frequent). The novel takes swipes at many of the social and political contrivances, customs, and conventions of Kenya's multi-cultural population. Drayson prods, with wit, the vulnerabilities he probably witnessed or was told about when he lived in Nairobi for two years.
Mr. Malik also prods. Under a pseudonym, he writes a weekly "Birds of a Feather" column that superficially appears to be about "the birds and beasts of Kenya" but actually satirically exposes the malfeasance and general nonsense of the country's politicians. Needless to say, exposure as the columnist might be hazardous to his health. Unfortunately, his lost notebook contains evidence that could out him.
This novel offers a laid-back tale that meanders some -- into silly situations at times: a farting bet, anyone? It follows the improbable but amusing adventures of a man shyly in love who doesn't quite know how to convey his feelings to the lady in question. And all the while, it slyly educates the reader about the social, racial, cultural, political, and what-have-you undercurrents in this African nation. Oh, and it not only draws wryly astute analogies between human beings and birds but it allows the reader to be almost as tickled as Mr. Malik when he sights a purple backed sunbird, a malachite kingfisher, or a hoopoe "with its long curved beak and clown's crest." The hoopoe "didn't seem at all afraid...Don't worry the bird seemed to be saying." Is that good advice? Will it all work out for Mr. Malik? Find out for yourself....
- Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from A Guide to the Birds of East Africa at Houghton Mifflin
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Confessing a Murder (2002)
- Love and the Platypus (2007)
- A Guide to the Birds of East Africa (September 2008)
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- In Converstation interview with Nicholas Drayson
- BookBrowse interview with Nicholas Drayson
- The age.com review of Love and the Platypus
- SMH.com review of Love and the Platypus
- Christian Science Monitor review of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa
- 1000 Birds review of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa and interview
- National Geographic review of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa
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About the Author:
Nicholas Drayson was born and raised in England. He moved to Australia in 1982, where he received a Ph.D. from the University of New South Wales. He studied zoology and earned his Ph.D. in 19th century Australian natural history writing.
He has written extensively about wildlife and natural history; he has worked as a journalist in the UK, Kenya and Australia, writing for publications such as the Daily Telegraph and Australian Geographic. From 1998 to 2001 he wrote for the National Museum of Australia. He was recently the winner of the inaugural WILDCARE Tasmania Nature Writing Prize.
He is also the author of Confessing a Murder, which was hailed by Booklist for its "view of Darwin never before seen."
Drayson lived in Nairobi for two years while his wife accepted a job as publications editor in an international agroforestry research center in Kenya. They now live in Canberra, Australia.