BookBrowse Reviews A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

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A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Novel

by Nicholas Drayson

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 208 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2009, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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A beguiling story that does for Kenya and its birds what Alexander McCall Smith's Ladies' Detective Agency series does for Botswana

Nicholas Drayson's latest book, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a rather unlikely novel. First, by its title, the initial impression is that it's a birding guide, not a work of fiction. The characters in it are almost all over the age of 60, not a popular choice in today's youth-centered culture. Its protagonist, Mr. Malik, is "a brown man, sixty-one years old, short, round and balding" with a bad comb-over, again, not your typical romantic hero. And yet, all these literary quirks combine to form a completely delightful novel.

Although the book's plot takes place in the present, it reads very much like a British period piece. The reader is reminded of Victorian-era works like Around the World in Eighty Days. The attitudes expressed by the main characters may strike readers as somewhat old-fashioned; Mr. Malik, in particular, has a highly developed sense of honor that is rare in today's world. Much of the narrative takes place at a gentlemen's club, where the men of a certain status in the area gather to drink, play billiards and gossip – again, a relic of a bygone era.

Drayson's humor is prevalent throughout the book. His prose is not typically laugh-out-loud funny, but its gentle wit imbues almost every paragraph. There's a certain lyricism to the text's phrasing as well, which helps the reader develop a sense of place; the reader can practically hear the African lilt of the novel's narrator.

Lying can get you in an awful mess, but it isn't easy being honest. Someone shows you a photograph of their new grandchild and says, "Isn't he just adorable?" Your frank opinion is that if a freshly skinned monkey is adorable, then so is this child – but do you say so? If someone near and dear to me were to parade before me in a new dress and ask, "Does this make my bottom look big?" would I say "Yes"? No. Though Mr. Malik had never been put in the latter quandary (the late Mrs. Malik, like many women in Africa, did not have so strange and modern an attitude to female proportions), he had been shown more than a few baby photographs in his time to which even he accepted that an honest response would be ill-judged. But despite such occasional lapses Mr. Malik's general policy was honesty in all things.

The book's overall light tone conceals the rather sharp barbs Drayson directs at Kenya's government and its social inequities through the eyes of the opinionated narrator who relates Mr. Malik's tale. This device allows Drayson to addresses modern issues such as AIDS in Africa, the poverty of many of Kenya's citizens, the lack of accessible education, the corruption of Kenya's government, and the lasting influence of British Colonialism (during which Kenya was known as British East Africa), without these social ills overwhelming the plot. They are, in fact, so tightly integrated that only after finishing the book does one become aware of how the author's views permeate the entire novel.

Drayson does make a few ornithological errors (as reported by the birding site 10000birds.com), citing some birds that wouldn't be found in the novel's locale and attributing rarity to others that can be found in abundance. None but the most avid birders are likely to notice, and, given the vivid descriptions of the fowl described, even fewer will care. Besides, the novel is about so much more than a birding contest or even a quest for the hand of a fair lady; it's primarily a journey of self-discovery the reader is privileged to observe.

Comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith's novels are inevitable. Fans of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series will not be disappointed in A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. If anything, Birds is better written, with more depth and humor. This book is sure to be a hit with book clubs, as well as readers looking for a light romance with a bit of a bite.

Photos: Top: The Black Crowned Crane is one of Kenya's unofficial national birds. Middle: The Goliath Heron is the biggest species of heron, up to 5ft in height but weighing less than 11lbs. Bottom: The Lilac-breasted Roller (a member of the roller family, related to kingfishers) is widely found in sub-Saharan Africa and the southern Arabian Peninsula. These birds were selected to illustrate this review not because of their appearance, if any, in the book but simply for their general good looks and that they are native to Kenya.

About the Author
Nicholas Drayson has written extensively about wildlife and natural history. He is also the author of Confessing a Murder, which was hailed by Booklist for its "view of Darwin never before seen." An Englishman by birth, Drayson lived in Nairobi for two years. He now lives in Australia, where he received a Ph.D. from the University of New South Wales.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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