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The International Writers Magazine
: Review of Alexander McCall Smith's latest African novel.

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
by Alexander McCall Smith

Sam North

There 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 written another.

Hardcover 231 pages
Publisher: Polygon 2004
ISBN: 1904598064

Amazon link here

The author is Alexander McCall Smith, the book is In the Company of Cheerful Ladies....and one immediately hopes that this isn’t the last of Precious Ramotswe – proprietor of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, the only one of it’s 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. McCall’s Botswana is almost mythical and only reluctantly do we accept that it is set in the present day. Certainly he doesn’t 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 dust.

As this novel begins with an intruder impaled under Precious Ramotswe’s 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 children’s orphanage they are sidetracked by the importance of cake. McCall Smith is having more fun with her and taking a few risks. But that’s 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 don’t 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, it’s her stories that will be on his gravestone, not ‘Sausage Dogs’. I hope he does not grow bitter about this.

It’s 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. It’s not real, at any rate disappearing fast, but it’s 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 us there.

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 become.
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 humanity.

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 Smith’s 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 it’s 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

The Kalahari Typing School For Men
Alexander McCall Smith

At The Villa Of Reduced Circumstances
Alexander McCall Smith

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Ps You can still buy Sam North's new novel Diamonds - The Rush of '72 here
More Fiction from Sam - A Very Particular Girl


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