... a work of strange beauty born of personal tragedy. Frank and his wife Louisa’s sixth miscarriage set him on the path to this book—an often unsettling, thoroughly researched, poetically expressed mélange of memoir, historical analysis and philosophical meditation ... The narrative’s path is not linear; instead, Frank follows the flow of his prodigious curiosity ... Suspense builds as the pages turn. Betwixt and between, there’s much to marvel at, from the far-reaching aftermath of diamond mining to the ways old memories have a hold on us. Readers will empathize with Frank’s efforts to process his grief and with Diamond Coast residents’ search for glints of hope in a grim desert. Through it all, pigeons soar in the sky and alight on the ground, offering companionship, a particular set of skills and thought-provoking fodder for metaphor.
If you get nothing else from this book, you will realize what a truly astonishing creature you are shooing out of your way on the sidewalk or cursing for crapping all over your car ... has some affecting scenes and some wonderful turns of phrase ... But there are also some wrong turns, phrasing-wise, in some cases so many in one sentence that readers could be forgiven for just giving up and moving on ... Frank seems to enjoy the people with whom he actually does talk, but you have to wonder if it occurred to him how few of them, given the opportunity, would ever reach the end of a book like this one ... Whether or not you enjoy this kind of prose is a matter of personal taste, but the author’s talent is not in question. Frank gets great quotes from the characters he interviews, and the book’s structure — searching for the mysterious Mr. Lester — keeps the story moving and offers a payoff in the end that is disappointing, but in all the best ways. The material in general — ghost towns, corporate cruelty, the centuries-old relationship between humans and a species almost magical in its abilities — is fabulous ... The problem is that there is not enough of it. Somewhere in this manuscript is an outstanding New Yorker-style piece of perhaps 10,000 words on pigeons and diamond mining, but successfully extending that to book length would have required more reporting than we get here. What we do get is not really reportage, in any case. Frank seems to know this; a running joke throughout the book is his failure to show up to interviews with an actual notebook and being forced instead to scribble on receipts or whatever else is at hand. Nor does the material really work as a book-length essay along the lines of Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk; themes hinted at early on — including the author’s grief over his wife’s lost pregnancy — are never fully developed. I would call this travel writing, which is nothing to be ashamed of for a writer with literary aspirations — we have all read travel writers so literate that their work transcends the genre. But we have all eaten thin soup, too, and know that nothing can really save it — not even page after page filled with allotropes and phenakistoscopes.
... crisp and poetic prose ... a quirky mixture of whimsy, history, and elegy to personal loss. We may have a hunch that diamonds are a sinister business, but in Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, Frank divulges completely new facets of the trade. The result is an intriguing read ... Don't read Flight of the Diamond Smugglers if you can't stomach learning about the myriad ways humans abuse animals and one another. On the other hand, if you resonate with keen observations and factoids, you're likely to love the refreshing oddities that fill these pages ... With great eloquence, Matthew Gavin Frank weaves his personal losses into a riveting cultural tapestry. If Flight of the Diamond Smugglers induces justified discomfort about the dirty business of diamonds, it also rewards with a panoramic view of an ancient and mysterious trade.
Unexpected connections abound in Frank's lyrical work, wherein — through visits to portions of this land, declared by De Beers in 2007 to be 'overmined' — he excavates the troubling history of this little-known landscape and the illicit industry of trafficking the precious stones ... Frank blends investigative journalism, historical research and rhapsodically written memoir to examine mankind's relentless exploitation of the Earth and all its creatures, including the humans themselves ... In refusing to romanticize the landscape or the piracy that takes place upon it, Frank's book suggests that perhaps what diamonds are forever really means is that so is avarice.
A page-turning tale of suspense ... His thorough reporting on mineworkers, their pigeons, and towns that have struggled in the wake of mine closures makes for compelling reading. The author excels in allowing people to speak for themselves, adding personal touches to a history of greed and trauma ... Frank writes a fascinating story of grief and history that will draw readers in from the first page. Must-read narrative nonfiction.
The author creates an intriguing and unusual blend of genres ... The pages are stuffed with notes on how pigeons live their lives, drinking with their heads down and carrying complex maps in their minds that enable them to locate their homes. The author’s prose is mannered, with a hint of the MFA workshop to it. A little of this overwriting goes a long way, and there’s a lot of it. The overall story, however, is interesting. Not without merits, but it might have worked better as a long-form magazine piece.