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Tail of the Blue Bird (thoughts)

January 13, 2011

Mysteries are one of my very favourite genre, and since I also love to read internationally, as soon as I heard about Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes I knew I had to get my hands on it. I honestly can’t remember where I heard about it, though; I ILLed it much earlier this year from my previous library system but didn’t notice how early the due date was and went out of town without bringing it with me (fortunately, my dad was still at home to return it to the library!). I was annoyed, but imagined attempting to ILL the same title twice would be frowned upon, so I waited until I was in a new library system to put in my second request. And this time I made sure to read it before the due date, which wasn’t really difficult, since it’s a slim book! And it was worth the hassle; I loved it.

This isn’t really a whodunnit kind of book, more of a crime novel I suppose. The mistress of a powerful Ghana minister stumbles across a freaky pile of flesh in a hut in a small village; that minister demands an accounting of the case and as things trickle down Kayo Odamtten, recently returned to Accra after earning a forensics degree in the UK, gets drawn into the case. He packs up his kit with all of the modern technology one would expect of the CSI age, only to find that in this village the old ways might be the only way of getting to the bottom of the mystery. Kayo himself is a marvelous character; he is at ease with traditions, so he immediately knows how to connect with the villagers, and he really loves Ghana, despite his disdain at the corruption present (similar to how I feel about my own country!). Parkes’ writing style was wonderful too: his uses vivid imagery, and the way he mixed in words from Ghanaian languages and dialects with ‘standard’ English worked perfectly. The plot kept me going: I was as curious as Kayo to hear the whole story from the villagers, and I loved the way supernatural elements were inextricably bound up with the storytelling. While Parkes leaves it up to readers to fill in some blanks, I found the ending quite satisfying.

This is a book populated by men, and while there is an occasional flash of misogynism (very early, one of the villagers says: “Sebi, our village is like a vagina. Those on the inside have no problems with it; those on the outside think it stinks.”), I didn’t feel unwelcome reading it; the narrative tone itself is neither misogynistic or chauvinistic (I say that to reassure women readers, like myself, who might shy away from crime books written by men). Parkes strikes me as an author unwilling to settle for simple, black-and-white views; while we see the women in the village through the eyes of men, the different male characters have different attitudes. The stories Kayo hears include powerful women as well as victimised ones, and I was really able to connect with the book rather than feeling like an outsider. At the end of the day, I think that’s the greatest strength of Tail of the Blue Bird: the reader is immediately drawn in to the world of the book. There isn’t that feeling one sometimes comes across in novels by international authors aimed at Western audiences that the culture has been exoticised and is being spoon-fed to the reader. Parkes had a story to tell, one that was intimately connected with the place and culture he grew up in, and so he told it.

I wish Parkes had other novels for me to read; as it is, I’ll just cross my fingers that he has a new one in the works! I’d recommend this for those who enjoy books with stylish prose (or literary fiction, as Laura Miller defined it), for those who enjoy crime fiction (although this isn’t gritty, for readers like me who shy away from ‘noir’ stuff), and of course anyone who loves to read internationally. I began this with the new year, and as my first ‘five star’ read of 2011, it definitely set a marvelous tone for the rest of my reading! (FYI for American readers: from what I can tell it has only just been released on this side of the Atlantic, so hopefully it will soon be a bit easier to locate. In the meantime, there’s always The Book Depository or taking advantage of your local library’s interlibrary loan service.)

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2011 6:03 am

    Nice to get a wonderful read at the beginning of the year. I don’t read a lot of crime novels, so not sure if this one is for me, but I did like the line you quoted.

    • January 16, 2011 11:38 am

      It’s as much about the power of stories and the clash between tradition and ‘progress’ as it is about crime! And it’s quite slim, so you won’t be stuck with it for long if it’s not for you. ;)

  2. January 13, 2011 6:23 am

    Haha, you had me at a pile of flesh. I’m adding it to my want to read pile. :)

  3. January 13, 2011 7:15 am

    Sounds awesome, I love to read internationally and I don’t think I’ve read a book set entirely in Ghana. Added to the Wishlist.

  4. January 13, 2011 8:54 am

    You managed the hat trick for me (you might need to watch a lot of American sports to know that one… it’s a three-in-a-row of something, I think!) – international read, crime and stylish prose! I can’t wait to pick this up. It sounds great. Thanks for this post!

    • January 16, 2011 11:39 am

      They have hat tricks in soccer too, so I know what they are. ;) And I’m glad you want to read this one now!

  5. January 13, 2011 9:14 am

    Thanks for highlighting this one, Eva. I enjoy crime novels set in other countries. I read another mystery set in Ghana early in 2010. It was WIFE OF THE GODS by Kwei Quartey. The second book (Inspector Darko Dawson series) will publish this summer. I don’t think that WIFE OF THE GODS was quite as literary as TALE OF THE BLUE BIRD sounds, but it was a good crime novel. My mystery book group all enjoyed it.

    • January 16, 2011 11:40 am

      I read Wife of the Gods last year. :) Definitely not as literary, but I always enjoy a good cosy mystery!

  6. January 13, 2011 9:18 am

    I’ve set myself a goal of reading more literature from other country this year and this donuts as thought it ought to be one I should look out for. Also, I have a friend whose PhD is in African Women’s writing. I’d like to give this to her and see what she makes of it, especially the vagina comment. I think fur might fly!

    • January 16, 2011 11:41 am

      Yeah: the vagina comment was obnoxious. But I’ve heard men say similar sh*t, and it was a character saying it, not the narrator, so I still liked the book as a whole.

  7. January 13, 2011 10:05 am

    Hmm. This sounds intriguing.

  8. January 13, 2011 10:38 am

    That vagina line makes me so mad! I know that it must be a good book if that didn’t immediately make you want to close this book and throw it far away from you!

    • January 16, 2011 11:42 am

      Oh, it made me mad too! Some men are assholes, right?! But yeah: that’s not the tone of the whole book at all.

  9. January 13, 2011 10:11 pm

    I was really surprised when I checked my library catalogue and they had this one. It does sound like a very interested read so I did request it!

    I recently read a book that is coming out later this year called Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman and that is about a young Ghanian boy who has moved to London and witnesses a murder. It has reflections of a real life murder case. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is a fantastic read but it was very interesting to see several facets to this young boy – Ghanian but experiencing big city London, innocent and yet living in a gang riddled area where violence is rife.

    • January 16, 2011 11:42 am

      Oh yay Marg: I’d love to see your reaction!

      Is Pigeon English gritty? I don’t do well with gritty.

      • Marg permalink
        January 16, 2011 1:50 pm

        Definitely gritty, so maybe give it a miss!

  10. January 13, 2011 11:21 pm

    that feeling one sometimes comes across in novels by international authors aimed at Western audiences that the culture has been exoticised and is being spoon-fed to the reader

    So well put. And a definite pet peeve of mine, so it’s good to hear that Tale of the Blue Bird avoids that particular trap. Sounds great, actually – maybe I’ll search it out the next time I’m in the mood for a crime novel. And what an appealing retro cover!

    • January 16, 2011 11:43 am

      Definitely a fun cover! And I would love to see you post about this one. :)

  11. January 14, 2011 10:31 am

    I just finished reading a biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, who, like Parkes, was not just writing “whodunnits.” To me, those are the best kinds of mysteries.

    Wanted to mention too that the wonderful photograph of Sherman Alexie you show to the right is also the cover of a new book out, Sherman Alexie: A Collection of Critical Essays. It’s a must-have for all Alexie-philes!

    • January 16, 2011 11:43 am

      I’m a huge Sayers fan. :) (But I also love Christie’s whodunnits; I’m an equal opportunity mystery reader, lol.) Good to know that Alexie has a new book out! I haven’t ventured into his nonfic stuff yet.

  12. January 14, 2011 10:54 am

    This one goes on the list!

  13. January 17, 2011 7:18 pm

    Well this one would fit nicely with my love of crime fiction as well as my desire to read books set in countries that I no little about (in this case Ghana).

  14. January 18, 2011 4:35 am

    Just a note to say thanks for sharing your thoughts on my novel. Many industry insiders advised me to add a ton of explanations and to ‘adapt’ the language, but I resisted in favour of having things in context and just respecting my readers’ ability to understand the book (I’m a huge Toni Morrison fan and something she said when I went to see her speak in London, about some writers not trusting their readers to be intelligent enough, really gave me license to relax and just tell the story from that point). I’m really glad the vagina comment didn’t put you off. I was shocked when Opanyin Poku said it and I was tempted to edit him, but it was in line with his character and he was complex enough for that not to define him so I let it sit. Again, thank you!

  15. January 18, 2011 12:16 pm

    I loved the style of this book think parkes managed to mix best of old Africa and new Africa together the use of a mystery carried the story of cultures clashing well ,all the best stu

  16. January 21, 2011 4:11 pm

    I’m so glad to see that you enjoyed this one Eva – it is high on my wish list and I can’t wait to read it myself at some point.

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