I happened across this book while considering its publisher to publish several of my forthcoming novels. (I didn’t.) I wanted to see what their books looked like, so ordered one that caught my eye. (My wife is a bird photographer; if I didn’t care for it, I knew where to find a second reader.) As it turned out, I enjoyed the novel very much.
Birds of the Nile has a subtitle: An Egyptian Adventure. It is indeed an adventure, one that begins when Michael Blake, an English civil servant, is forced into retirement from his lassitude-laced job at the British Embassy in Cairo. He decides to take an extended boat cruise birdwatching on the Nile. This is Michael Blake’s call to adventure; he plans to spend his time observing birds through his birding telescope. Right away we get the sense that he is a reluctant adventurer; he doesn’t photograph or shoot the birds; he only looks. His passivity becomes a major theme of the story.
As the tour gets underway, he encounters Lee Yong, a beautiful young tour-mate bird (as the Brits were once fond of referring to attractive young women, such as Twiggy or Jane Asher or Jacqueline Bisset). Blake, not a young man and evidently a bachelor his entire life, cannot overcome his trepidation about approaching her. He is clearly infatuated; his following her, both mentally and physically, soon feels kind of creepy. The reader could surmise dire consequences occurring. Yet if such a thing happened, it would mean Blakes’ call to adventure would end in disaster, which is by no means to say it couldn’t happen – for this or other reasons. I shall not divulge any spoilers.
What’s most impressive is the manner in which Mr. David tells his tale – Blake’s emotional yearning urged on by his stalker-like distancing, his evocative, unrequited romantic fantasy spun out against the ominous drumbeats of a larger, more profound drama. One is never quite on solid ground when trying to discern how things will turn out, which is driven in part by the background setting of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, intended to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (which eventually happened). But that’s the idea: turn another page to see what happens next.
Over the course of my reading I also became intrigued to learn more about the author, whom I learned is named Nick David and resides in York, England. Nick took up writing fiction later in life (as have I, following John Gardner’s now un-internet-able dictum that the older writer has the advantage of experience from which to craft stories). I found this remark on Nick’s website most interesting:
Frankly, I’m not of my time. I’m white, male, middle-class and middle-aged and I write what I know. Who wants to publish that these days? Or read it for that matter. Certainly not the Irish novelist Marian Keyes. Here’s what she had to say earlier this year. “I only read women. I know that men write books. But their lives are so limited. It’s such a small and narrow experience.” (The Guardian, 10 Feb 2020). I have to say I found this crass, narrow-minded and unfairly denigrating of men. Of course men have deep and significant experiences. And, contrary to popular belief, we also have emotions – although we’re often pretty good at hiding them.
I plan to write Nick next, in hopes of striking up a correspondence with another “white, male, middle-class, middle-aged” kindred spirit.
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