Monday, January 10, 2011

The Clouds Beneath the Sun - a book review

This is my review of The Clouds Beneath the Sun, by Mackenzie Ford, Doubleday, NY, 2009.

This novel is set in Kenya in 1961. Although fiction, the author clearly draws upon the famous Leaky family for inspiration. The fictional Deacons are all noted paleontologists . Philandering patriarch Jock is recently dead, but wife Eleanor carries on afterward and runs the dig in the Kihara Gorge (read Olduvai) with an iron fist. One son, Jack flies his own plane and is involved in the politics of the emerging nation. Another son, Christopher, as well as other characters filter in and out of the story.

The plot circles around a beautiful newly minted PhD, Natalie Nelson, who, carrying quite a bit of her own emotional baggage, joins the excavation. She witnesses events surrounding the murder of a colleague and is subsequently drawn into a twisting drama as she decides whether or not to testify. Because the alleged murder is Maasai, in whose territory the Kihara Gorge lies, in testifying she might put the whole excavation site and its valuable finds at great risk. The story is compounded by a love interest and fraught with jealousies – both personal and professional.

I found a great number of nits to pick in this otherwise fairly well paced novel. First the author sets the book in 1961, well before independence, but then goes on to mention on several occasions contact with the American or Dutch embassies or the British High Commission. Flatly put there were no such diplomatic establishments prior to independence.

Secondly animals; the author cites listening to the chimpanzees in the middle of the Serengeti (none live there), the snorts of “water” buffalo (Africa’s buffaloes are cape buffalo), lions mating in groups (doubtful, I have only seen them in pairs), and a preposterous scene wherein Europeans try to save wildebeests who are crossing the Mara river in the thousands by lassoing them and hauling them back to shore (unbelievable).

Thirdly airports; the author asserts that Kilimanjaro is the closest airport (except it did not exist in 1961). He also uses Nairobi International (really known then as Embakasi) as the strip from which Jack flies. Private aircraft on internal flights would have come and gone from Wilson Airport. The author also alludes to a number of private jets parked at Nairobi International . It turned out later that he needed this fiction for the plot, but it is doubtful if there were really such aircraft around in 1961 – remember, it was just the beginning of the jet age for commercial aircraft.

I could go on, but will conclude by commenting on the beautiful photograph on the jacket of the book. It is one of a couple sitting in camp chairs with the majesty of Kilimanjaro behind them. Wonderful, except for the fact that unless it is printed backwards, the picture was taken from Tanzania. Kibo peak is on the left and Mwenzi on the right. You cannot get that perspective from the Kenyan side.

Enough already! Despite my fault finding (I enjoyed looking for them), the book was okay. I do not especially like romances and there was certainly a lot of breast heaving introspection in this one, but there was enough of a Kenyan setting, a murder mystery, trial shenanigans and links to politics to keep my attention. I did not like the ending.