Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Nicholas Drayson's A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is not actually a field guide (such as this one), but a novel. This book is set in Kenya, a country blessed with one of the most diverse bird populations in the world. (Its principal competitors for that title are in northern South America.) The rich bird diversity makes it a natural setting for the birding competition that comprises most of the narrative.

The premise is as follows. Two old acquaintances (but not exactly friends) find out that they both want to invite the same woman, Rose Mbikwa, to one of Nairobi's premier social events. One, Mr. Malik, has lived in Nairobi for years. The other, Harry Khan, has roots in Kenya but lived most of his life abroad. The two, with the instigation of members of Malik's social club, decide that the proper thing to do is to compete for the right to ask first; whoever sees the most species of birds in one week wins. While the premise has obvious problems, the subsequent plot is executed fairly well with some unexpected twists and turns, and the ending resolves some of the tensions satisfactorily.

So what to make of that title? The author states in an interview that he borrowed the title based on an actual field guide written by a friend. As one might expect in a tale of competitive birding, a great many bird species are mentioned, and in some cases elements of their natural history are discussed. The title makes sense on that level, but I suspect one other meaning. One of the central characters, Rose Mbikwa, is literally "a guide to the birds of East Africa," as she leads weekly bird walks and trains young tour guides to serve the booming ecotourism industry.

There is a good deal of commentary in this Guide regarding Kenya's political and social climate. Rose Mbikwa is the widow of a former government official, and Malik writes pseudonymous political fables for a popular newspaper. Unfortunately I am not in a position to evaluate this commentary since I know little of the Kenyan context. It would be interesting to hear from someone who does know whether Drayson's portrayal is accurate.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is a fast and exciting read. It held my attention sufficiently to distract somewhat from my virus-induced misery for a few hours over the weekend. This book is definitely worth a look for anyone who is interested in birding-related fiction.

Nicholas Drayson, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Pp. 208; illustrations. $22.00 cloth.