Thrillers are not usually my jam, but after reading Truth is a Flightless Bird I wonder if they should be! This novel was a breathless rush from beginning to end. I can see how this would make a fantastic television series and I am looking forward to seeing the unravelling around Duncan, Ciru, and Nice on the screen. I even want to see Toogood — which is a commendation to Hussain’s skill at writing terrific flawed villains.
The novel is explosive from the get-go. Nice is a drug mule flying from Mogadishu (Somalia) to Nairobi (Kenya) and Duncan, her friend and a pastor, is unwittingly dragged into the mess that she has made of this illicit mission. The story revolves around Duncan’s nightmare as drug dealers, corrupt officials, petty thieves, and others attempt to take advantage of Nice and the dangerous situation which naturally results from ingesting and walking around with drugs in your body. Ciru is one of those individuals who attempts to use Nice and the drugs to further her own agenda. She is a witch doctor, a con-woman, a mother who has lost her wayward child due to the machinations of others further up in the drug-smuggling world. Toogood is a Somalian gangster, also trapped in this convoluted drug-criminal world trying to make amends for a past he had little control over. Then there is Edmund, a young man deported from the United States, and Hinga, a corrupt police officer, and a crew of other characters who each come into the tale with their own ambitions.
As a thriller, there isn’t much interiority to these characters, but the reader will discover that no one is who they seem to be on the surface. The truth matters very little in this underbelly world; what matters is using what you have to get what you need or what you want. I don’t usually try to read too much into thrillers; but, it is here — in this discussion of the utility of truth — that Hussain’s title has to give the reader pause to reflect. There is something being said here about the futility of struggling against tides that are out of our control. Truth is one of those obstacles, or at least, the idea that there is a single Truth, capital T. All the characters of this novel, Duncan, Nice, Ciru, and Toogood, have found themselves in situations less than ideal, despite their best efforts. The truth, their truth, does not matter to the forces and people who hold the reins of their lives. It should not even matter to themselves; to survive Nairobi they’ve got to let go of the idea that there is only one truth, one version of events, one version of a person. They have to let go of an idea of themselves that either doesn’t really exist or will drag them down. In a way, their blind pursuit of truth stifles them, prevents them from taking flight — being free.
The novel also makes a subtle comment on the corruptibility of the human soul — and the possibility of redemption. As events unfold, it becomes clear that the characters are more than what they appear. They are flawed, corrupted, but that doesn’t mean they are wholly bad people. The bad decisions they’ve made in their lives should not define them, but inevitably do. The novel is about their attempts to right their wrongs. Some of them succeed, some of them fail — and spectacularly. Entwined in a drug-smuggling mess the characters find that one error leads to another one, deeper and darker and more dangerous than the last.
Plot and characters aside, Truth is a Flightless Bird is a fantastic novel of place. It gives the reader a view into a world most of us will never get to see or experience in person: the seedy underworld of Nairobi and Mogadishu. I don’t doubt these worlds really exist. Every city in the world has its unsavory parts, its criminal societies, and there are good people everywhere who are drowned in it. People like Nice and Duncan and Ciru. Even Hinga and Toogood. The interactions of the characters, the crimes committed, and Hussain’s prose take the reader there, immerse them in it for a brief moment.