Book Review: Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Ghanaian Lit Week)
When the girlfriend of the minister for roads and highways spots a disgusting red lump of flesh in a hut in the village Sonokrom, what normally would have been ignored and left to the villagers suddenly becomes a matter of national importance. Inspector Donkor wants a promotion, and he believes that one of the only forensics specialists in Ghana–Kayo–can get it for him.
What Kayo finds in the village is a people still steeped in the culture of the countryside, in touch with Onyame and the ancestors, drinkers of palm wine mixed with aphrodisiacs. Although he arrives with the mind of a scientist, soon his perceptions begin to change.
Kinna is one of the international bloggers I discovered through Amy, and she is awesome! She lives and works in Ghana and is interested in spreading literacy and love of reading in her own country, as well as interest in African lit everywhere. So when she announced that she was hosting a week in hour of Ghanaian lit, I knew I wanted to participate. Using the wonderful resource of tags in LibraryThing, I hunted down a book that LibraryThing was “mostly sure” I would like and ordered it from my library. Yet again, the book blogging world has brought me to a book I never would have read otherwise, but am glad I did.
This book reminds me a lot of The Summoner, only with the distinct bonus that it is a crime mystery set in Africa written by an African instead of a westerner who has visited. This means our detective hero is distinctly Ghanaian. Like all detectives, he drinks, but his drink of choice is palm wine enhanced by the village medicine man. Just typing out that sentence gave me the shivers of delight I got when I was reading the scenes of drinking and eating in the hut, which is the village pub managed by a woman and her adult daughter. It felt simultaneously familiar and new, which is one of the thrills of reading literature not written by one of your own countrymen.
Unlike western detective stories though, Parkes does not seem to feel a need to give a scientific explanation for every mysterious event that occurs. In fact, it is actually easier to believe the magical explanation than to wonder about the scientific explanation. For that reason I would definitely categorize this as “magical realism.” It is almost as if Sonokrom is a world unto itself, existing in some sort of parallel universe where magic is just an ordinary part of life.
The characters are all richly drawn and well-rounded. I had no trouble telling them apart in my mind. The method of switching perspectives from Kayo to the old man in the village works well. It allows the reader to see both the scientific and traditional perspectives and make up her own mind.
Some people may be bothered by the ambiguous/open-ended ending, but personally I feel that this is what the story needs. It leaves the reader to ponder upon the values of both tradition and modernity. Perhaps that is the point of the whole story.
Now, the book does throw in some Twi words here and there, but those are easily decipherable by context. The more difficult aspect as a non-African reader is the presence of Pidgin. Since whole sentences are written in Pidgin they were much more challenging for me. I must admit this small book took me quite a while to finish, compared to my usual reading rate. The Pidgin is not impossible, though, particularly if you have read widely among the various American dialects. An English dialect is an English dialect, after all.
Overall, I recommend this to those who enjoy both mystery and magical realism and don’t mind exploring a new dialect.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Public Library