Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reading. McCall Smith.

I began reading Alexander McCall Smith some years ago, when I heard his latest book mentioned on the radio. In those days I listened to NPR when I drove the winding road from the university towards home, through the park and along the lake. He had written a few books about a woman detective in Botswana (The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series); there are now six books, and I have read five of them. But then I discovered his Scottish books while on holiday last summer, and here was something else entirely. They were written in the same gentle way as the Botswana mysteries, but these books were set in Edinburgh, as unfamiliar a world to me as the sun-burnt earth of Botswana.

Espresso Tales is the continuation of 44 Scotland Street; both are serial novels written by McCall Smith for The Scotsman, stories about the lives of the various inhabitants of a Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh, converted into flats. Reading them is like being given a bar of the most perfect chocolate and cautioned that it can only be consumed in the tiniest of bites. I can only imagine what it must have been like to read it slowly, chapter by chapter in the newspaper. I would have gone mad wondering if Bruce would finally get his comeuppance, if Pat and Matthew could authenticate the painting, if Bertie would ever get to play rugby. In Espresso Tales the various threads begun in the first book wind towards their resolution.

The world of these books is one where boys wear crushed-strawberry dungarees, sophisticated women with interesting past lives (that is, lives before they moved back to Edinburgh and lived in converted Georgian townhouses) drive custard-colored Mercedes-Benzes, and arrogant young men cut their hair en brosse. It is all completely foreign to me, and therefore completely fascinating. (And I am still not quite sure what en brosse means). And all the while these interwoven lives are played out against this city which McCall Smith describes with a fondness, a bone-deep love, an absolute tenderness matched only by the way he writes about Botswana. The rhythm of the city gets under your skin and straight to the heart.

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