“He said this was what Independence truly meant.” The son pointed across the valley towards the sun as it crept towards the horizon. “He said that only when you can see tomorrow with nothing in your way, are you truly free.”
Alois is a very smart young man. He is also a thief with a talent for hypnotising chickens. On a nighttime thieving expedition he falls into the backyard of a white man who asks him to run an errand for him. A simple one. Just collect a letter. For this Alois will receive $1,000. He never would have thought he would be drawn into political machinations and decades old intrigue threatening the government and his own safety, as well as that of those closest to him.
So, The Chicken Thief is about as different from my usual fare as you can get. Which is great because I’ve noticed that the reviews here are starting to get a bit same-same. There’s only so many artsy dystopian love stories a girl can review before she goes cross-eyed. Given I’m generally not one for thrillers, I’m not sure whether I should be surprised at how much I enjoyed this one or not. Perhaps I should be surprised that I was surprised? In the novel we catch a glimpse of a political struggle drawn out over decades. Parallels with real life abound, a noble, almost sainted, resistance fighter in an African nation is held captive for 25 years. During this time her former allies install themselves in an independent, but hopelessly corrupt and murderous government. Somehow, by coincidence or fate, Alois the chicken thief is drawn into all of this and finds himself remarkably gifted at subterfuge and espionage.
With beer in his hand, Harry would recite them like a rosary – “Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, Eritrea, Congo, blah, blah, blah. The roll call of Africa, my friend. Pick a country and I’ll tell you when the war started.” No matter which country he started with, he always left out the big one – Rwanda.
Leonard never names the African country she sets her story in, I assume intentionally. I wasn’t sure if I should read into that the implication that it could be any country; that so many stories of colonisation, corruption and struggle for independence repeat themselves across the continent. Her tale seems to be plucked straight out of Orwell, the new independent government proving to be just as problematic as the last. She treads across multiple layers of gender, race and power deftly and honestly.
Over the years Alois had learnt that most women wear their good humour boldly like a coloured cloth, all the while carrying their tears stored away like water in a pot and not a drop will fall. Then one day there will be a stone on the path and the next thing you know the pot as broken at your feet and water has gone everywhere. Of course, then there were women who didn’t even both putting the water up there in the first place. They simply threw it straight at you to save time.
Alois has a sense of humour. His wise-cracks serve to lighten the mood; amid political strife life does go on, after all. This is a story with heart, so much heart. Leonard’s ability to change gear the way she does is quite remarkable, but it also creates an inconsistency of tone that was occasionally jarring. I also found the pacing of the novel to be episodic, each chapter seemed to end like a TV show with a “to be continued…” feeling about it. For some readers that could contribute to “page-turner” momentum but I confess I felt a little like I was being spoon-fed and the story is worth more than that. Curiosity about how this all was going to end was enough to drive me forward, the novel is a grabs you and holds you kind of affair, and the final confrontation really did surprise me. I have to take my hat off to Leonard for thinking so big and unflinchingly about civil war and independence while running it alongside every day life and love. It is a difficult story to tell and that she was able to steer her characters through it and keep them warm-hearted, genuine and often funny is testament to her skill and her light touch.
I have a Q & A with Leonard prepared for tomorrow – come back to read the answers to all the questions you never thought to ask!
I was supplied with a Kindle version by the author.
The Chicken Thief, Fiona Leonard: three stars.
Read it if: you’re after a political adventure with heart, you need to set foot outside your comfort zone.