Birds, Passion, and Politics

Nicholas Drayson’s novel A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is set in contemporary Kenya. In a favourable review, Publishers Weekly has called it ‘sweet and gripping’ – surely an unusual combination. I found that description very apt. The book reminded me of a recipe by Jamie Oliver where the burn of the chilli is cleverly balanced by something more soft and nurturing.

The central character is, Mr Malik. He has finally been able to lay down the burden of running The Jollyman Manufacturing Co, which he reluctantly inherited from his father. His wife has died of cancer several years before and his competent daughter, Petula, now manages the business. On the advice of his heart specialist, he has taken up bird watching to relieve his stress – on the grounds that it is a more relaxing hobby than women. Gentle, balding Mr Malik seems an unlikely hero, but as the story unfolds we find he has surprising depths of courage and determination.

Enter the potential love-interest, the former Rose Macdonald, who runs the local bird-watching club. Rose is the widow of a black parliamentarian, Joseph Mbikwa, who was killed in a plane crash in suspicious circumstances. An undercurrent of threat from government corruption and violence underlies this tale which is otherwise slyly humorous, charming, and wise – a little in the vein of The No.1 Ladies Detective series by Alexander McCall.

Naturally there must be an antagonist in this story. He comes in the form of Harry Khan, a wealthy businessman, four times divorced, and out for a good time whilst on holiday in his former home city of Nairobi.

When they meet at the Asadi Club, the two men discover that they both wish to invite the lovely Rose to the social event of the year, The Nairobi Hunt Club Ball. The good gents of the club decide that the esteemed lady must not be embarrassed by having to make a choice between them. So they devise a secret competition. The Mr Malik and Harry Khan must see how many of Kenya’s one thousand bird species they can spot in a week. Led by a lawyer known only as The Tiger, a committee is set up. It devises a complex set of rules of engagement which are worthy of the constitution of a small country.

Now the story really takes off as the combatants set out each day to record the fabulous bird life of Kenya. Soon the corrupt and threatening politics of the country enter to spice up the drama for seemingly-innocuous Mr Malik.

I loved this book. I’m sure the fact that Kenya is a dream wildlife-safari destination which my budget hasn’t yet allowed me to visit has added a vicarious thrill. I may be more excited by leopards and lions, but at least I feel as though I’ve spotted hundreds of exotic birds without even leaving the comfort of my sofa or bed.