Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

Reserved, honourable Mr Malik. You wouldn't notice him in a Nairobi street - except, perhaps, to comment on his carefully sculpted comb-over - but beneath his unprepossessing exterior lie a warm heart and a secret passion. Not even his friends at the Asadi Club know it, but Mr Malik is head-over-heels in love with the leader of the Tuesday-morning bird walk of the East African Ornithological Society, Rose Mbikwa.

With Mr Malik hesitantly plans how he will ask Rose to the annual Hunt ball, flashy Harry Kahn arrives in town and makes it clear that he too has Rose in his sights. When Mr Malik blurts out his feelings at the club a wager is set - whoever sees the most birds in a week will ask Rose to the ball.

With boats, planes and guides to get him to the choicest birdwatching spots in Kenya, Harry Khan's soon noting down everything from peral-breasted swallows to spur-winged plovers. But Mr Malik's not so easily beaten and with unorthodox methods and far-flung adventures of his own, he's determined to stay in the game.

Some time ago I read a couple of reviews for this book, and I definitely remember leaving a comment on at least one review. I wish I could remember whose blog it was but I can't. If I could, I would like to thank them for introducing me to this delightful little book! It was an added bonus to find out that the author, whilst English by birth, has been living in Australia for many years. We quite regularly claim people born in other countries as our own, so yay, I read an Aussie author! Go me!

I was going to try and talk a little bit about the book before I started making the almost inevitable comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, but I find that I really can't because the pace, and the style are quite similar. I would point out though, that this is no copy cat type situation like we see so often in book trends (for example, can anyone say altered Austen works that we have loads of at the moment).

So let's look at the differences and similarities. At first glance, the setting is similar, but that is a somewhat superficial similarity given that the AMS books take place in Botswana in southern Africa, and this book takes place in Kenya on the eastern coast of Africa. For me the AMS books have a very laid back pace, a lovely mellow tone to them. Whilst in this book the pacing was similar, the humour was a bit earthy, more bitey if you know what I mean (as an example, there was quite a long section where the men of the club were discussing how many times people fart in a day and a scene where one of the minor characters was duped into taking his clothes off). Whereas I smile contentedly at an AMS book, in this one I laughed out loud several times!

Where the main character in the Ladies Detective Agency books is an African lady of traditional build, our main character in this book is a funny little balding man with a 'carefully sculpted combover' of Indian descent who lives in Nairobi. Where there is a lot of focus on the loss of traditional African values in the AMS books, here we are almost looking at the ex pat experience, the individual communities that develop within a city and the cross culture relationships.

Enough of the comparisons. What about the story?

Our story opens when we meet Mr Malik as he attends the Tuesday morning bird walk run by the East African Ornithologial Society, and led by the lovely Rose Mbikwa. Mr Malik is a widower who has been in love with Rose for quite some time. She was a young white lady who came to Africa, fell in love with a Kenyan and stayed, even after she was widowed in suspicious circumstances. Mr Malik is trying to gather up the courage to ask Rose to attend the Hunt Ball with him, but he soon feels as though he has no chance when flashy Harry Khan turns up at the bird walk. Harry had tormented our man through school and so when Harry announces that he is going to ask Rose to the ball, Mr Malik was sure that his chance was pretty much gone. When he says as much his colleagues at the Asadi club come up with a bet. Whoever sees the most birds in a week get to ask Rose to the ball.

With Harry able to access planes, boats and other transport to get him to all the best bird watching spots in Kenya, Mr Malik didn't seem to have much of a chance at all. His chances are further diminished when he has car trouble, and his notebook is stolen. 

At first glance, there is nothing much all that interesting about Mr Malik, but the author skilfully builds layers into his character, slowly revealing the compassionate, charitable, clever man underneath the unprepossessing exterior. It is a delight to discover each new truth about Mr Malik.

At 200 pages, this is not a long book by any stretch of the imagination. It would be a perfect change of pace book to read between heavier novels. The narrator  is an unnamed third person, kind of an all seeing, all knowing character. Whilst this is not necessarily a point of view that I regularly read, for the most part the technique was used well in this book. There were a couple of moments where I was left wondering why this different voice was telling the tale, but for the most part it added to the story, not impeded.

The end of the book gives a tidy resolution, but I would love to revisit the characters in a future read. There is a delicious little hook about one of Mr Malik's nicknames from school that I would love to know the answer of where it came from! I think I read somewhere that Nicholas Drayson is working on a sequel. I will definitely be going out of my way to read it!

If you enjoy reading the Ladies Detective Agency novels then give this one a go. If you haven't read them, then I would still recommend this book for those times when you just want a short, enjoyable and fun read!

Rating 4.5/5


  1. haha I am so like that as well... I am beyond amazed that we can claim Markus Zusak and Margo Lanagan as our own. Go Aussie pride!

    This book looks positively gorgeous by the way - its now on my wishlist!

    -Aimee :)

  2. sounds lovely, I will definitely look out for it.

  3. Ladies Detective Agency --love them, I'll look for this one :)

  4. Great review! I really like how you compare this book to the Ladies Dectective Agency series. I also really like the synopsis of this book, and think it sounds like a fun read. I am glad you liked it and am going to look for my own copy. Thanks!

  5. It would be splendid to have a guide that shows species of birds that are already extinct and you never know if you suddenly find a bird that was suppose to have been extincted.

  6. I am so glad that you enjoyed my book A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. The sequel will be published in July. It is called A Guide to the Beasts of East Africa.

    Best wishes from India, Nick Drayson.

    1. Nick, that's great news! I will definitely be looking forward to it!



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