Tail of the Blue Bird is Ghanian poet, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, debut novel and what a debut. I've been wanting to read this novel for a while now, so when I saw copies of it at The African Book Festival (at prices more affordable than I'd seen on Amazon), I knew I had to get a copy.
The Minister of Works girlfriend spots a blue bird and follows it to what we learn is Sonokrom - a small village in rural Ghana. It may only be a few hours from the capital, Accra, but it is an entirely different world governed by a more traditional way of life. Once in Sonokrom, the unnamed woman spots what seems to be strange remains in the hut of Kofi Atta, the cocoa farmer. Due to her connections (she is a Minister's girlfriend after all), and being traumatised by what she saw, an investigation begins to discover what she saw and what exactly happened. The opening village scene is told from the perspective of one of the main characters of the novel, Yaw Poku (named Opanyin), who also gives the reader the more traditional, and 'out-of-this world' side of the story.
This is contrasted excellently in the next chapter, when the other main character, Kwadwo Odammten (nicknamed Kayo) is introduced. He is a forensic pathologist trained in the UK and now working in a lab in Accra. He did try to join the Ghanian Police Force as a forensic scientist, but he was unsuccessful. Inspector Kondor, a corrupt police officer who wants nothing but to rise to the top, sees this case as his way up and will do whatever it takes to force Kayo to take on this case. So begins the investigation.
But what was that thing the Minister's girlfriend spotted in Kofi Atta's hut, will Kayo's knowledge of forensic science help solve the case, what do the villagers (and particularly Yaw Poku know), and how far will science go in helping to explain exactly what happened in Sonokrom? All these I can't tell you, because it will spoil the mystery, but what I can tell you is that this is an exciting and unusual tale weaving modernity (Kayo's science) and tradition (Yaw Poku, the traditions of the village and its people), to solve what was never going to be a straight-forward case.
There are so many beautiful parts of this story and many aspects of the novel that stood out for me. The use of folk tales told by Yaw Poku in Akua Darko's hut to help in solving the case was one, but another one was the use of language. I actually found language to be an important aspect of the story and I loved how in Tail of the Blue Bird, the Ghanaian words in Twi weren't italicised or translated (you need to go here for a glossary after you've read the book), and the English words (words that were foreign to the villagers) were the ones that were italicised. I also loved the use of pidgin English in the story. In fact, the use of English, Twi and pidgin in Tail of the Blue Bird reflects to me the fact that more than one language is spoken, and I could also relate to it because what Parkes has done is write in a way I know Nigerians also speak - English, local language, pidgin.
A thoroughly enjoyable read and one I would recommend if you want an unconventional mystery, that mixes tradition and folk tales with modern science, and uses language in a very clever way to make for an even more interesting read.
4 out of 5 stars
*A while ago, I made a list of "Pidgin English in African Fiction" and Tail of the Blue Bird definitely needs to be added to it.