Friday, 10 January 2014

Review of Birds of the Nile and an interview with its author, N E David

Happy Friday!
Well, a new year and new challenges. My reading challenge, as you will have seen on Monday is initially for 30 books this year, since I have a lot of other commitments - more of that in the coming weeks. However, in the meantime, I was absolutely delighted that the first book I chose to read this year, Birds of the Nile by N E David was so good, it achieved my top rating of 5 stars.
Intrigued? Well, here's the blurb:

When Michael Blake takes early retirement from the British Embassy in Cairo, he books a long–awaited birding trip. But halfway up the Nile he meets Lee Yong and things begin to change. Their tour guide Reda isn’t all he seems either and when the Egyptian revolution kicks off, Blake finds himself embroiled in a tangled web of love and intrigue. Set against the background of the events of January 2011, Birds of the Nile is a powerful story of loss and self-discovery as three disparate characters, each with their own agenda, seek to come to terms with change. Part political thriller, part love story, Birds of the Nile is N.E.David’s debut novel. Poignantly written, it reminds us of the complex nature of global cultural interaction and how, as individuals, we try to deal with it.

And now for my review!

I'd previously read two novellas by N E David and enjoyed them immensely and my only complaint had been that they weren't novels, as I would have liked them to continue. However, Birds of the Nile is quite a departure from the author's comedies, but as the subject was Egypt, a country I have visited and had long wanted to visit, I was even more excited at the prospect of reading this, his first novel. I wasn't disappointed. It gave the author the opportunity to show what he is capable of and the language used was wonderfully evocative. I felt as if I were back in Egypt. I could imagine the locals in their basic Egyptian clothing; the people carrying tourists' cases who wanted to be tipped; the feeling of mistrust of foreigners which the Westerners displayed; the Egyptians agreeing with their counterparts not to bother certain tourists - they had already been taken care of; the attitude towards women.

The romantic involvement is subtle and fittingly so. The novel contains a broad tapestry of characters. I liked the silent Ira, the larger than life Mrs Biltmore and the Britishness of David and Joan.
The subplot of the birding holiday was well considered and was woven seamlessly throughout the novel. I also enjoyed the Foreign Office sections and the personage of Carpenter, who was the epitome of officialdom - a penpusher who offloaded his workload elsewhere.
I was delighted to revisit through Birds of the Nile some of the historic monuments I visited myself whilst in Egypt and it refreshed my memory of the ways of the Egyptian people, whilst at the same time letting me view things from a different perspective - that of an Englishman who considers himself Egyptian.
All in all this novel is a triumph which I have already recommended to friends.

So what questions did I have to pose to the author? I've been to Egypt and although I don't really follow politics, I'm aware of what happened in 2011.  The book raised many questions for me, in much the same way as Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist did, despite the dissimilarity in genre.

This is a marked departure from your usual genre of comic novella. What sparked the desire to write a political/historical romance?
The ‘comic’ novellas were only ever a bit of fun, a ‘starter for ten’ if you like, but it has always been my intention to write something serious. Birds of the Nile is actually my fourth novel - the other three still need a lot of work before they’re ready to see the light of day - and the advent of the revolution in Egypt gave me the impetus to make it the first.
Was there a research trip for Birds of the Nile and or had you been to Egypt before? (I myself have visited some of the temples mentioned and Cairo, so loved it all being brought to life again)
The idea originated from a holiday my wife and I made to Egypt in 2009. We travelled up and down the Nile and being a writer, I watched what went on around me and kept a diary. A plot occurred to me then and I did write it up but it wasn’t until the revolution came along that the whole thing really came to life in my head.
Michael Blake seems to do an awful lot for a girl he only has a passing acquaintance of. What did he realistically envisage their future relationship to be?
He daren’t admit it to himself but he’s in love with her! Which is why he wants to be as helpful as he can. As far as any long-term relationship is concerned, he knows in his heart that’s never going to be possible. The situation he finds himself in at the end of the book is as much as he could ever have hoped for.
Reda, the Egyptian tour guide has a connection with Lee Yong from the very beginning. Blake must be a saint to give the level of help to Reda that he does.  Why does Lee Yong feel she can ask Michael for help, especially given the severity of the situation in which her friend, Reda, finds himself?
This is the eternal triangle - Blake is in love with Lee Yong, Lee Yong is in love with Reda and Reda is in love with Egypt. Blake is also in love with Egypt, but from a different standpoint. Under these kinds of circumstances, people’s actions and motives become confused - which is why we find what our characters do so fascinating. When Lee Yong is driven to get Reda out of prison, Blake is the only person she can turn to. Her instincts also tell her that Blake has a soft spot for her - she’s a canny woman, remember!
The scene outside the cafĂ©, on the night they all go into town epitomised just how frightening it must have been to be in Egypt then. Do you think it had been obvious before the events of Jan 2011 that something was afoot? I ask as I wonder why no-one challenged Reda’s decision to stay put.
I’m pleased to hear you say how that scene came across as frightening as I found it difficult to write. The scene in Tahrir Square later in the book was much easier although as people who have never had to endure events such as these I don’t think we can truly understand the significance of them. Reda was prepared to die to save his country - and how many of us can say that?
As to whether Egypt, Jan 2011 was obviously going to happen, it’s hard to say. There were certainly signs beforehand and if our security services didn’t get wind of it, I’d be very surprised. But for us ordinary citizens in the West, quietly going about our business, it was definitely a shock. Which is probably why no-one challenged Reda’s decision - they simply weren’t prepared for anything else.
Mistrust by each side is felt throughout the novel; from the Westerners in reference to the jewellery box , to the police asking why Blake would want to get involved. Why does Blake decide to trust Lee Yong and Reda?
I think the answer is twofold. Firstly, as we already know Blake is in love with Lee Yong and he will do virtually anything to help her. Secondly, Blake is gradually coming to the conclusion that his life up until now has been meaningless and that this is an opportunity for him to redeem himself. I don’t think he asks himself whether he should trust them or not - he is more concerned with trusting himself to do the right thing and if that means taking a risk, so be it.
The characters evoked good memories of Egypt for me (prior to 2011, I hasten to add); from the bumbling, but eager to please hotel manager, to the Biltmores from Baltimore, to the constantly complaining Joan. Of the secondary characters, who did you most enjoy writing and why?
This is a fairly easy one as I have always liked both Carpenter and Mrs Biltmore (I have no idea of her first name by the way). I just love how they initially come across as annoying non-entities but how their hidden inner strengths are crucial to the outcome of the story. My favourite piece about Carpenter is when he visits Blake in hospital after Blake has been blinded. He’s sent him a get-well card with a joke on it ridiculing Mubarak which he’s found particularly funny. The irony is that Blake can’t read it of course, a fact that’s escaped Carpenter’s notice. But despite his obvious failings, he’s unquestionable loyal and will go to great lengths to help his friend.
Is there a lesson in the novel? If so, what?
If there is, then it’s entirely unintentional. I never try to preach or moralise and my only aim is to tell a good story and entertain my reader. What I would most like people to take away with them from the book is an understanding of the character of Blake - if I haven’t conveyed that adequately then I will have failed.
Given the sub-plot of the birding holiday, I have to ask, are you a twitcher yourself? ! My dad knows loads about birds, but I confess to being almost totally ignorant on the subject! If not, what was your particular interest in marrying this storyline to the others?
Don’t call me a twitcher! It’s a sensitive point. Bird-watcher yes, twitcher no - there’s a big difference. And yes, I did take my telescope and binoculars up the Nile and I saw all the birds exactly as mentioned in the book. The boat tour round Elephantine Island and the First Cataract will stay with me for the rest of my life - it was fabulous.
The loss of a sense and the compensation by others was a valid and interesting point. It being a blessing was something I had heard before. How did you choose which sense Blake would lose?
Simple - it has to be eyesight because then he can no longer see his precious birds. That deprives him of what has hitherto been his greatest pleasure in life and gives the ending of the book so much poignancy. His compensation is the relationship he now enjoys with Lee Yong. Without his blindness, that probably wouldn’t have happened.
You can keep track of N E David's writing via the following means:-
Website -
Twitter - @NEDavidAuthor
and you can pick up your copy of Birds of the Nile here:-
Catch up next week! have a great weekend everyone

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