Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The discovery of sinister remains in a Ghanaian village leads to the first full-scale CSI-type investigation. Greater forces are clearly at work than local disaffections. A splendid mixture of African culture, western science, old-fashioned mystery mastery, all leavened with a sweet dose of affectionate humour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224085748

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Yaw Poku is a hunter so light surprises me. I am used to the dimness of the forest – the way light falls on me like incisions from a knife when I move. When I go to the forest sound is brighter than light, so light surprises me.

Tail of the Blue Bird is a book of surprises and bright sounds.

What comes as no surprise is that the author is first and foremost a poet. No disrespect to other authorial disciplines, but poetry does impose certain restraints and encourages certain other discoveries: in particular the economy of words and rhythm of languages (each language has a distinct rhythm). Parkes uses these and more to subtle, almost subliminal, effect. The switching between language and culture is not subtle. It is used deliberately, bluntly, and with purpose. Indeed at times it is even remarked upon by the characters I don't care whether you speak English, Pidgin or Twi… But this does not preclude the effects of the switch carrying more than the overt indicators.

The rhythm of the local speech is maintained, even when the narrative is taken beyond the voice of the participants, and it is this which holds the disparate viewpoints together, but more importantly, this which gives the work its lyric quality and creates the sense of place.

The place in question is Sonokrom. One of 'the 16 villages' falling under a certain chief in the forests and hills some two-and-a-half hours from the Ghanaian capital Accra.

Life here has changed over the centuries. The forest used to be thick thick and higher and the boar have gone deep deep into the forest. At the same time life has continued unchanged. The languages of the forest are still spoken. The sight of a car is enough to bring the children running out to gawp – but a radio is commonplace and a laptop computer provokes no specific curiosity.

The people of Sonokrom were at their somewhere when they came. They were a thin-legged, short-skirted woman and the driver of her flash car. Into the village they came. The car stopped. The woman got out, called a greeting, but without an answer entered the hut of Kofi Atta.

Then she screamed.

Kofi Atta has not been seen for weeks, possibly months.

What was found in the hut was red and bloody and moving and evil, most definitely evil.

In the normal way of things the villagers would have dealt with the discovery in the normal way, but this woman has friends in high places. So the police arrive. They know that this time a full and proper report will be demanded. They do not feel themselves able to deliver it. In the circumstances.

Meanwhile, back in the city, Kayo is bored. Working for a private lab, taking money for mandatory drug and food-additive testing was not what he had in mind when he came home. London University educated and West Midlands Constabulary SOCO trained, he'd hoped to join his home force and bring modern science to bear on his country's criminality.

Modern Ghanaian politics had other ideas. There are, after all, degrees of criminality in a country with Ghana's problems.

Then a Government Minister's girlfriend entered a hut in an unremarkable village, and screamed.

The initial outcome is that a local police chief with an eye for the main chance immediately sets about drafting Kayo onto the team.

Part Ladies Detective Agency, part CSI, the Blue Bird manages to rise above both giving us local custom without any veneer of the quaintness of the former, and pure science for the layman with none of the patronising air of the latter. In both cases, you get it or you don't – which goes for the characters as well as for the reader.

The narrative voice switches between the hunter and the forensic scientist, with the external author filling in where neither has a direct view of events. The voices are sufficiently delineated for them to be used without the need for clear breaks, resulting in a truly free-flow, free-form, story-telling.

Setting, place and tone are all rooted in Parkes' poetic tradition, but he steps well beyond that to give us a real mystery story. Not just a who-dunnit or why-dunnit, but a more what-exactly-was-it-wot-was-done kind of mystery story. In the style of Conan Doyle, the question is as much about whether there actually is a crime, as (if there is) who committed it and why.

Of course, it's not possible to write about modern Africa without alluding to the great culture clash that we westerners like to believe exists on the dark continent. Sensibly Parkes disagrees. There is no 'clash' of cultures here. Rather there is the gradual accommodation of them. Rural areas always lag behind the urban in any country's development, then just as they start to catch up, the urbanites begin to realise what they've lost in their departure from their rural roots. This is not a specifically African experience. Part of the appeal of such novels is that we can see in the more blatant contrasts feint echoes of our pasts and mistakes, but also that they show that totally different cultures do continue to co-exist, leaking slowly one into the other: accommodating.

This is a wonderful short novel (only some 170 pages in the paperback edition). Full of linguistic and cultural juxtaposition, it makes some serious points about modern Ghana's failing systems and pays due homage to the country's traditional heritage, but it does it all in the context of a police procedural – if you can use such an expression of such a country. It works because the story works. Some of the characters are slower on the uptake than the reader, but this does not detract from a basically solid plot, deftly executed.

I was convinced it had all the makings of a springboard for a series…until…suddenly it doesn't. I hope Parkes has a few more ideas up his sleeve because it would be a real shame for this to be a one-off.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For the lighter side of African detective stories, you cannot beat the delightful Mma Ramotswe tales from McCall Smith – for a darker take seek out Henning Mankell in Africa.

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