When asked what I like best in novels, I say that I like getting to visit another place and time. A bit of gentle humor and sympathetic characters also help. Throw in some plot twists and I am very happy indeed. This all describes A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson.
Drayson's title will probably cause some confussion for years to come. I can imagine readers looking for bird guides getting it from the shelf and saying, "What's this? Where are the color photos?" Each chapter does start with a characture of a bird above the chapter number, but these pen and ink drawings are not really organized for bird spotting.
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is, despite the title, a novel set in and around present day Nairobi, Kenya. In its first chapter, the characters meet on a bird walk near the car park outside the Nairobi Museum. Rose Mbikwa is a Scottish expatriate who leads the weekly bird walks. Mr. Malik, owner of Jolly Man Manufacturing, is a third generation Indian, whose grandfather immigrated to help build the Kenyan railroad. Mr. Malik is a quiet admirer of Rose and has bought tickets to the annual Hunt Club Ball, but he hasn't the courage to ask her to accompany him to the ball. While he stalls, a playboy from the Indian community, back after years abroad, decides that he will invite Rose. Over drinks at the Asadi Club, their mutual intentions are discovered and friends recommend a birding contest to win the right to ask Rose to the dance.
The week long bird contest with its surprising difficulties takes much of the book. In the process, Drayson reveals many of the joys and sorrows of the struggling African nation and depicts its multi-ethnic community. He also includes many quick bits about the amazingly rich bird life of East Africa. Readers with Zimmerman's Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania can look up each colorful bird as its spotted.
Readers looking for a good book while waiting for the next Alexander McCall Smith title will enjoy A Guide to the Birds of East Africa.
Drayson, Nicholas. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Houghton Mifflin, 2008. ISBN 9780547152585