Quirky and enjoyable (3.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published in January 2012 by Viking
I read the paperback edition which is 202 pages
Though I didn’t fall in love with this book, I found it to be an entertaining, engaging read. It was in fact the perfect novel to curl up with and dream about faraway, sunnier climes and in that respect I think it would be the ideal escapist story to take away on holiday.
Don’t let the cover or title fool you either: this isn’t a book about ornithology; well, not in the true sense anyway. It is instead a not-so-conventional love story set in Kenya and the main protagonists just happen to be birdwatchers. A lot of information about birds is imparted, though in quite a natural, effortless way throughout the context of the plot. I’m not particularly a bird-lover, but I did appreciate the illustrations at the top of each chapter, too.
Being set in Africa, invariably this book draws comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1. Ladies Detective Agency novels- though don’t they all, nowadays?! If I read that assessment on a cover one. more. time. then I might scream! I’d say for me, the beautifully illustrated cover is somewhat reminiscent of his style, as well as the rather ‘quiet’ approach to the storytelling and the slightly ‘older’ protagonists featured, though they are perhaps the only similarities that I can think of.
Mr. Malik has been secretly in love with Rose Mbikwa, a woman who leads the weekly bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society for the past three years. After finally working up the courage to decide to invite her to the premier social occasion of the Kenyan calendar- the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball- Mr Malik is askance when his former childhood nemesis, Harry Khan arrives back in town with the intention of doing the same. To prevent an unsuspecting Rose having to choose between her two suitors, a solution is proposed: whoever can identify the most species of birds in one week’s time gets the privilege of asking Ms. Mbikwa to the ball.
A simple, easy plot laced with wit and subtle humour and one I found to be entertaining. I enjoyed reading about Kenya too- though this book doesn’t perhaps evoke as much of a sense of place as I had expected it to. Despite that, there are mentions of its poverty, corruption and violence, as well as the devastation that the AIDS epidemic had- and still has- in Africa today. This book explores people’s daily lives within the country, as seen through the lives of an omnipresent, anonymous narrator, who I must confess I did find a bit annoying at first as they sporadically dip in and out of the story and sometimes their observations can veer off course somewhat.
Though you don’t get to know the characters here in any massive depth either, there are some small hints dropped about them which I do feel could have been expanded somewhat. It is a shame that Rose is missing for virtually three quarters of the book, being the romantic interest and all, as I would have liked to know a bit more about her and how she felt in her adopted country- a place that she clearly felt so much love and respect for. We do however get to know Mr Malik on something more than a superficial level, in particular the poignant relationship he had with his son, whereby he is still trying to atone for some grave mistakes he made and his hidden love of Kenyan politics. Mr Malik was a really entertaining individual to get to know- a likeable man of integrity who did have a bit more about him than I initially anticipated. He was also well-respected amongst his peers, though even they have no real idea as to just what secrets he is hiding…
I did like the fact that this novel focuses on somewhat older protagonists, all of whom live passionate, fulfilled lives. They have hobbies and interests and even after losing much-loved spouses, prove that they are able to open their hearts once more. The villain of the piece, Harry Khan, was fun to read about. It was entertaining to see that some men never grow out of their boyhood rivalries and revert to type once they are confronted with their past. I wasn’t convinced of his feelings for Rose at all, not in the way I was of Mr Malik’s, she just seemed to be a fun distraction to him, so I was interested to see how the story would finally play out. When the conclusion arrived, it was predictable, but satisfying nonetheless.
Happily, this book does have a sequel, featuring the affable Mr Malik and the gang: “A Guide to the Beasts of East Africa”, which I’m pretty sure I will be reading in the future. Let’s just hope we get to know all of the characters a little better next time around.