The International Writers Magazine: Review of Alexander McCall
Smith's latest African novel.
the Company of Cheerful Ladies
by Alexander McCall Smith
can be few pleasures as discovering one of your favourite authors
has a new novel out and even more pleasure in knowing that although
he said the last one was the absolute last, he has caved in and
Hardcover 231 pages
Publisher: Polygon 2004
Amazon link here
The author is Alexander
McCall Smith, the book is In the Company of Cheerful Ladies....and one
immediately hopes that this isnt the last of Precious Ramotswe
proprietor of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, the only one
of its kind in Gaborone, Botswana.
Much has been written about the phenonemon that is this traditonally
build lady, who has quite easily captured the hearts of millions of
readers all around the globe. It demonstrates at once that people will
read about Africa if the book is good, that if that Africa seems a little
less like the harsh, cruel, despot ridden place we read about in the
newspapers then all the better. McCalls Botswana is almost mythical
and only reluctantly do we accept that it is set in the present day.
Certainly he doesnt shy away from subjects such as HIV or urban
crime, but Precious Ramotswe is not so much a detective more a metaphor
for a lost world. Indeed our first lady of female detectives, does little
detecting, not even her assistant detective Mme... does any serious
sleuthing. They do make bush tea a great deal however and ponder the
morals and mores of their world as well as their place in it.
These books are charming and compulsive because they portray an unreal
place where manners and respect are still important, although everyone
knows they are a lost cause. Yet Precious is fighting to keep the inevitable
at bay. There is respect for the past, the country that Botswana has
become and fear for the country she will develop into. Every thought,
every moment is heavy with forboding, but lightfooted and subtle. Africa
is brought alive and this female detective is the jewel in Botswana's
As this novel begins with an intruder impaled under Precious Ramotswes
bed it is at once hilariously funny and an affectionate dig at just
how heavy our traditional lady detective is. Another important moment
comes when talking to the Director of the childrens orphanage
they are sidetracked by the importance of cake. McCall Smith is having
more fun with her and taking a few risks. But thats fine, that
is as it should be.
McCall is struggling under the weight of Precious Ramotswe himself.
He writes many books (The Importance of Sausage Dogs, The Villa of Reduced
Circumstances, for example, or his latest 'The Sunday Philosophy Club'.
He, I am sure, wishes to stride off in another direction with his new
slim lady detective in Edinburgh. However, this is a man who should
realise that with his created world in Gaborone, the garage of J.L.B.
Matekoni and his wayward apprentices, the liesurely pace and rythmn
of Africa; he has hit a literary goldmine that probably can never be
entirely satisfied. Indeed, although I have tried to read his other
books, that just dont come as complete or authentic as his Gaberone
adventures. Like the comic who seeks to be taken seriously as an actor,
perhaps he has not grasped that Precious Ramotswe is bigger than him
and however reluctant he may be, its her stories that will be
on his gravestone, not Sausage Dogs. I hope he does not
grow bitter about this.
Its a world where the crimes are slight, the characters have intense
lives where every detail, no matter how minute, is amplified and moments
of joy, however brief, immensely satisfying. Its not real, at
any rate disappearing fast, but its the Africa we would like to
believe is real with all the values Precious espouses.
I admire the way everything pauses from time to time just to drink in
a sunset or stretch our eyes to the vast horizon. He really does take
In the Company of Cheerful ladies cannot be the last and although slight,
it has lovely moments.
Mma Makutsi discovers the humiliation of being stuck with the wrong
partner in a dance class, which is a universal fear, as indeed is, for
Precious in particular, the moment she discovers her ex is back in town
and she quite forgot to divorce him before marrying Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni
of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. How she copes with his blackmail is
very well balanced indeed. Mr Matekoni too preoccupied with his own
problems doesn't notice how distracted his normally attentive wife has
One becomes totally absorbed by these chartacters and their feelings.
No matter how slight it all may seem, this is excellent insightful writing
that is rewarding to read and enhances ones belief in the goodness of
Nice moments come
too when Precious accidentally runs into a cyclist with her old white
van and although his an ex con, she takes him on as an assistant. She
trusts her instincts and acts impusively upon them. So simply, but cleverly,
a new character in the agency is established whilst we fret for Charlie,
the apprentice, who has run off with that terrible lost cause, the older,
rich married woman. No detail ever introduced is every wasted. You have
to be alert. The detective work is only ever quite incidental in McCall
Smiths inventions. It is the characters, their fears and desires,
their brilliantly conceived minutae that consumes us and makes us devour
each book with the same speed Precious Ramotswe can devour cake.
A pleasure to read and instantly it ends, one wants to read more. McCall
Smith please note. One a year should keep us all quite happy.
*Although you may have missed the radio dramatisations on BBC Radio
4 in September '04, look out for the series on TV next year as the novels
are dramatised by no lesser director than Anthony Minghella (English
Patient, Cold Mountain) for New Africa Media Films. The old white
Citroen van will be making its rounds and one, I believe, can
trust Minghella to bring the No. I Ladies Detective Agency brilliantly
to life. It will be something to savour.
No.1 Ladies Detective Agency and Tears of a Giraffe by
Alexander McCall Smith
Review by John Lewell
Kalahari Typing School For Men
Alexander McCall Smith
The Villa Of Reduced Circumstances
Alexander McCall Smith
Ps You can still buy Sam North's new novel
- The Rush of '72 here
from Sam - A Very Particular
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