Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Review of a novel by Nicholas Drayson; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008

Although it sounds like a guide book, in reality this work is a novel. It is a delightfully chatty comedy of manners replete with keen insight into Nairobians of various hues. The chief protagonist is shy, retiring Mr. Malik who engages in a contest of bird watching with boisterous, obnoxious Mr. Harry Khan for the right to ask a certain lady, Rose Mbikwa, to the annual hunt ball. As the story unfolds all is not quite as it initially seemed, the characters become more complex and overlays of plot, some with sinister implications, intrude.

Those who know Kenya will find the setting accurately described. Most institutions and places are called by their correct names, but those that aren’t are easily identified from their pseudo names. With the exception of attributing the naming of Lake Victoria to Dr. Livingstone rather than John Hanning Speke, author Nicholas Drayson’s historical asides ring true, but some are obviously invented such as the reasons why Maasai wear red. The ornithological information, of which there is a lot regarding bird species and their whereabouts also appears authentic to this amateur birdwatcher, but with doubts that one could find a flamingo on Lake Victoria. Even so it was great fun to recognize names and descriptions as the chase ensued.

Even though the birds provided a mechanism to move the plot forward, it was really the commentary – pithy observations about the times or the characters that made the story interesting. Drayson certainly had a knack for encapsulating personalities and pinning down mannerisms and dialogue in a fashion that kept the reader entertained.

There are no weighty issues in this novel, but it is entertaining (and fairly short). It will certainly appeal to those who know Kenya and especially those who have tried to sort out some of its birds.

P.S. On several occasions the novel mentions favorably a training program for guides run by the Nairobi Museum. Indeed that program has produced a number of very competent (and pleasant) local guides. On a recent trip to Kenya, Steven at Ziwani Camp and Julius at Siana Springs, aptly led us to new birds, including the rare Magpie Shrike found only in Kenya near Siana.

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