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Book Review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

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If you are looking for an actual guide to birds, you will be disappointed, but not for long. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is actually a diverting tale of the adventures of a middle-aged widower in Nairobi who enjoys bird-watching, has a crush on a widow named Rose, and is the author of an anonymous newspaper column satirizing local politicians.

The story unfolds with brevity and wit. Mr Malik, a very staid and proper businessman, plans to invite Rose to the event of the season, the Annual Hunt Club Ball, but his courage fails him and he delays sending the letter. Meanwhile, he finds he has a rival for Rose's affections, Mr Khan, a brash and conceited rich man whom he has known all his life. Khan and Malik are diametrically opposite: Malik retiring, modest, and quiet, Khan boisterous, conceited and brash. Mr Khan also plans to invite Rose to the ball.

When the members of his club accidentally find out about the rivalry between the two men, they persuade them to participate in a contest. The contestant who sees more species of birds in a week will win the right to ask the lady to the dance.

The plot quickly spins out of control, involving the theft of Malik's car, the disappearance of a notebook, a farting contest, and an unfortunate encounter with Somalian kidnappers, which almost costs Malik his life. The thematic rivalry between Malik and Khan, so different in every respect, pervades Guide to the Birds.

This story is set in the city of Nairobi and its outskirts. Kenya is presented as a beautiful, unspoiled country, a veritable garden of Eden, abounding in birds and wildlife of every sort.

Nicholas Drayson, the author, has a delicate touch. He alludes to but does not dwell on serious problems which afflict modern Kenya. The 800 lb gorilla which afflicts all of Africa — the AIDS epidemic — is touched upon briefly and gives this light-hearted novel overtones of seriousness. Also pointed to are government corruption and lawlessness, lending a somber note to this sunny novel.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa has been compared to No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories of Alexander McCall Smith. There are similarities. Both authors appear to have a real affection for Africa and its people. But Botswana, an arid place, is quite different from Kenya, which is lush and teeming with wildlife, and the background is an essential element of Drayson's novel.

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