It may have been noticed that, in my Christmas Day slump on the sofa, I was a few pages into Alexander McCall Smith's latest Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Comfort of Saturdays . And I found it very bit as enjoyable as its predecessors, despite its being even smaller in its compass and concerns.
Although it deals, theoretically, as ever, with issues of life and death, this is not a novel which will appeal to those who enjoy a broad sweep of place, character or ideas. It would, indeed, be fairly baffling, I suspect, to anyone who hadn't read and appreciated the previous novels in the series. But for fans of Isabel Dalhousie, it is like taking a very pleasant stroll around Edinburgh with an agreeable companion, with some light ethical wrestling thrown in to keep the grey cells ticking over between cups of tea and visits to Cat's Deli.
The most striking aspect of this latest airing of Isabel's character for me was her increasing sense of fallibility. Despite having had a child with her much younger partner, Jamie - a musician - she feels, if not exactly unworthy of him, then constantly, naggingly disbelieving that she can possible either deserve, or hang on to, a man of such beauty, talent and, above all . . . youth. She cannot believe or quite accept her good fortune and, consequently, sees all about her tiny hints and signs that her fears are not unfounded.
Is Isabel, clear-sighted solver of other people's problems, right in her reading of the 'clues' about Jamie? This sub-plot was, for me, more arresting than the central 'mystery' in the book - a doctor consumed with guilt and shame over an accidental death he may not have caused. McCall Smith handles Isabel's desperate doubts about Jamie's fidelity with great compassion and his unusually acute insight into the female psyche. She's an intelligent woman, a philosopher, and yet she is also every woman who's ever found herself in love with a man in whom she is in awe, and she simply cannot stop herself from doubting the true depth of his affection for her.
The detailed rendering of the physical setting for Isabel's happiness, in her garden at the end of the novel, was for me faintly reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield's short story Bliss - but still too reminiscent to be entirely comfortable. Can a novel of ideas (and one in a series) embrace such perfect happiness without presaging some darkness yet to come? I have found this aspect of The Comfort of Saturdays haunting - which is not something a McCall Smith novel has ever done to me before.