“A guide to the birds of East Africa: A novel” – by Nicholas Drayson. This book is an accidental find – a happy find but purely accidental. I recently went on a safari and a friend who had been on safari recommended that I take a book on birds on East Africa since it will be handy to identify the birds I see on safari. Everyone talks about animals, especially Big 5, and the Great Migration if you go on East African safari but no one talks about the birds…and that is such a shame because the number and variety of birds you see is amazing.
So, shortly before I left I went to the library and searched the catalog for “A guide to birds of East Africa”, scribbled down the call number, grabbed the book and rushed out. Even when I picked this book up from fiction section of the library – and not from the reference section – it did not occur to me that something was off. I realized only after I started reading that it is a fiction based on birds set in Nairobi…that the most important theme of the book is ornithology. With its pencil illustrations of birds – which are very nice – at the beginning of every chapter and reference to different birds of Kenya the book is sort of a guide to the birds of East Africa.
It is, however, about an unusual love story of Mr.Malik, a retired and widowed Indian, and Ms.Mbikwa, an expat that made Kenya her home and leads the Tuesday morning birds walks for East Africa Ornithological Society. As the book opens Mr.Malik is trying to profess his love for Ms.Mbikwa and invite her to a ball, although he is not a dancer himself, when a childhood nemesis, Harry, shows up to steal Ms.Mbikwa right from under Mr.Malik’s shy, loving gaze. As all gentlemen do, they decide to fight each other to determine who gets to ask Ms.Mbikwa out and in the spirit of East Africa Ornithological Society and the title of the book the one who gets Ms.Mbikwa’s hand is the one who sees most birds in a week.
The stage is set and the game is on…who you root for and how the book ends is all so very predictable. What makes it a pleasant read is the narrative style – full of wit and charm. It is hilarious when the author calls out on English explorers on naming that “huge wet patch in the middle of Africa” Lake Victoria. The author lived in Nairobi for 2 years and so he presents the landscape – both geographical and political – well. The book starts out slow but chapter by chapter it gets deeper and more complex.
A reviewer called this “a sort of P.G.Wodehouse meets Alexander McCall Smith” and I completely agree. What I also loved is the way he ended the story…yes, it does end on a happy note but with a slight twist. Through out the book the author fills you in on Mr.Malik’s and Harry’s childhood but he leaves one particular and important story untold…”he may be sharing the story on Jack but I never shall tell”…and I thought that was a brilliant touch.
At 262 pages, it is a short read and when you close the book on “If at this moment he is not the happiest, short, round, balding brown man in all the world then I don’t know what happiness is” note…you will be smiling! A delightful read!