We still don’t see much authentic African crime fiction in Britain or America, less still from Kenya, so this promising debut is to be welcomed for helping to pave the way. Truth is a Flightless Bird is an intriguing mystery about the drugs trade and the people caught up in it. It’s a fascinating insight into Nairobi, from the vibrant rich quarters to the poverty ridden streets.
Theresa, known as Nice, is a Canadian UN aid worker en route to Nairobi from Mogadishu, a flight that will last just over an hour. In her belly is a quarter kilo of designer pills… and a baby. She has dreams of escaping her Somali drug dealer boyfriend, Toogood, a purveyor of bespoke drugs who runs a lucrative venture that Nice has become caught up in.
She just about gets through customs to be met by her American friend Duncan, a priest with the Westlands Church of the Earth. The two have formed an unlikely friendship and each seems to see something of their own salvation in the other. Duncan is clearly wrestling with his own demons, anger bubbling under the surface, being a preacher in a cruel world is taking its toll. He has just left the parents of a 13-year-old who died on a building site to greet Nice.
As Duncan and Nice head from the airport their car is involved in a crash. They fall into the clutches of a corrupt policeman, Hinga. He knows who Nice’s boyfriend is. Hinga is not the only one with an eye for the main chance. Ciru has her own story of woe, about happened in New York to her son. She will will do anything for a better life and has an idea to cut in on Toogood’s trade. Duncan and Nice are now pawns in a deadly game.
One of the themes of the novel is escape. The characters are looking for ways out of the lives they feel trapped by. Author Akbar Hussain is very good at demonstrating how for people will go for the promise of a better life. We see desperation, fear, greed and a spark of humanity. Some characters are trying to do the right thing, others are willing to climb over everyone else to get what they want with no hope of redemption.
The strength of this novel, its deftly drawn characters, is paradoxically its draw back as a pacy crime novel. It opens with a flurry of action, we learn about the people from the situations they are in and how they deal with life and that works fine. Nice, Duncan, Toogood, Ciru and Hinga are fully rounded characters. We can see why they take the chances they do, even where we don’t go along with their thinking, such as Nice’s very risky decision to transport drugs in her pregnant belly. However, along the way Hussain drops in too much exposition and backstory and it slows the narrative. It’s a common feature of debut novels.
There’s a strong story here, grounded, at times in some shocking insights. The setting, mostly Nairobi, is brilliantly observed. The mix of vibrant, throbbing, teeming life juxtaposed with poverty, corruption, perverse religion, racism and crime feels very realistic. The upcoming visit of Barrack Obama, with all that that means for the locals, is an interesting backdrop but isn’t as well developed as it could be. When the writer allows his prose free rein it’s exciting and stylish, that makes us hopeful for future novels.
Truth is a Flightless Bird has been optioned for TV by Chudor House Productions and this would make a fascinating and original drama, with luck that will come about but many a slip twixt cup and lip.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars