A lighthearted novel about birding and a wager to win the right to call a woman for a date.
The story is set in Nigeria, where former Nairobi resident Drayson (Confessing a Murder, 2002) introduces us to Mr. Malik, a shy widower whose son recently died of AIDS. As a way of having at least some semblance of a social life, he’s been going on weekly excursions with the local birding club, led by the attractive Rose Mbikwa. Shortly before the big social event of the year, the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball, the brash but charming Harry Khan shows up. In their school days more than 40 years earlier he had bullied Mr. Malik, and now he seems determined to best him again by courting Rose. Because both men are interested in inviting her to the ball, they decide on a gentleman’s bet, to be adjudicated by members of the Nairobi Asadi Club. The wager is for the right to invite Rose to the ball, a right that will be given to whoever identifies the greatest number of birds in one week. While he knows far more about womanizing than about birding, Harry wastes no time lining up a couple of ornithologically astute Australian tourists to help him out, and because Harry is both rich and competitive, he has no qualms in pulling out all the stops—hiring a plane to take him to Mount Kenya, for example, to augment his week’s list. Meanwhile, for Mr. Malik things go painfully and comically awry. His car is stolen, which makes traveling beyond the bounds of Nairobi a serious problem, and after he recovers the car he’s held up by machine-gun-toting bandits. With less than 24 hours to go he finds himself down by one, with 198 species to Harry’s 199.
A sweet novel in which the reader gets surprisingly caught up in fairly frivolous events.