The Chicken Thief (2011; 340) by Fiona Leonard has been described as a political thriller of sorts. Set in an unnamed African country, it provides a different take on the struggle for independence in a southern Africa country. Though the country is unnamed, there were several flagpoles which point to Zimbabwe: for instance, the president had been in power for a long time (about twenty-five years in the story), there was a bush war that led to independence, they shared boundaries with Namibia and South Africa and other idiosyncrasies.
The story might have evolved from a kind of several 'what if...' questions and the material is this country's struggle for independence and the people involved. The past which served as the basis for the story and the present actions of the characters was developed mainly through dialogue. And the story itself spans a period of about five days.
Assuming that in the struggle for independence, there were seven main leaders. But at the final moment, the moment of glory where the colonisers were about to concede defeat and hand over the country to majority rule, five of the fighters suddenly had a plane crush, including Gabriel an enigmatic fighter. Except that Gabriel, deemed among the five dead, did not really die.
Twenty-five years on and Alois was the master chicken thief. On one of his nocturnal rounds he was chanced upon a robbery and in flight landed in the house of Jim, a man who had been observing Alois as he goes around stealing chickens. Jim, a professor in the university, informed Alois that he had a job for him that would earn him as much as - through negotiations - US$ 1,000. All he had to do was to collect a letter from a certain man at a given address at midnight and return the letter to him; if he failed to be there on time the man will destroy the letter. Simple. And the thousand dollars would be his. With a new life away from stealing chickens beckoning and more importantly a new life with Rose playing on his mind, Alois accepted the offer. However, when Alois got there, and after a flurry of guns and his inadvertent rescue of a woman and with no letter in hand, Alois realised that there is more to this than just a letter. Though he was slow in realising this, it finally dawned on him when he took the woman home and called Jim who began speaking in codes, informing him to hide the car.
This woman turned out to be Gabriel, a national heroine - a woman who had been presumed dead through a plane crash and at whose funeral the president had attended. Over the next three or four days, Alois would have to be more than a chicken thief. He had to be able to outwit security, tell cogent lies, be on the run with Alois, dodge bullets, and most importantly learn the untold unrelated history of his country from this totally enigmatic woman. Through a series of schemes from Jim who himself was under security surveillance, Alois would drive cross-country, with death at his heels. But Alois is sometimes slow; sometimes he fails to appreciate the nature of problem he is facing or the enormity of the task ahead. He would later involve several individuals: Harry was his white friend and a photographer and a lender of books to Alois; Daniel is Harry's friend whose father works for the government but who had returned home from further studies and had formed his own opposition party and Rose, Alois's girlfriend. These complications took place at the Levin - Ursula and Phillip, a couple who collaborated, in some form, with the independence fighters - household on a farm. Gabriel was now set to find out what happened to the others, whom she know were - unlike her - truly dead. And she intends to expose the president for what he his and his other surviving colleague, Ndlovu, who was Gabriel's arch-enemy during the struggle.
The story is pacey, though it could have been made tighter at some places, and funny. The reader is in for a true thriller set in Africa and of Ludlum proportions and with an unlikely hero. The material itself is unpredictable and so too is the story. There were several twists and turns and even though some events might be guessed right, others take the reader by surprise. Fiona has written a story that again, like McCall's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - portrays all the ambiguities and duality most African countries are famed for. There were several places that I questioned whether there is such a conspiracy hidden within Zimbabwe's struggle for independence. For instance, I have started a search to discover if truly there were individuals like Phillip and Ursula who helped the black course knowing that they were plotting the destruction of a lifestyle that benefits and favours them, in toto. Another beauty about this story is that it was self-published. It is a clear example of why not to judge a book using that dichotomous publication options: self or corporate.
However, I had a few issues not with the prose but with some of the characters and descriptions. For instance I found Gabriel almost impeccable. She put herself into several dangers against the advice of those around her and in all these she came out unscathed. Yet, could it be Fiona's fault? Anyone who had been incarcerated for that long in a cubic room with almost to nothing possessions except a cup, a fork, a spoon and two newspapers - one local one foreign - every week and a guard to guide you, will behave like that when thrown back into a world she last saw or interacted with twenty-five years previous. But it was overstretched at the point where her excellent gardening skills, picked up or learnt by the guards, saved a whole community from drought. There were also some dramatic and somewhat cinematic descriptions like the place when she collapsed after Jim had shown her an address which happened to be the place where plane took off. Finally, there were two places where 'Alois felt the color rushing into his cheeks'. I thought this was an impossibility in blacks.
Regardless of these, reading Alois adventure, which ended in the parliament house at a time the president was about to announce his intention to step down - as the international community had forced him to do, was fulfilling. Fiona Leonard had written a book that will forever dance on the mind of its readers. Perhaps it will ginger other writers to expand their writing possibilities and subject matter and keep asking the 'what ifs' that made the Ludlums and Sheldons.