Sunday 13 July 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

Opening this, the fifth title Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series, I resolved to keep my wits about me. Surely he could not have pulled it off again? Would there not be some sign that a long-running novel - published in daily parts in The Scotsman - couldn't possibly go on forever? Could a writer really sustain interest and invention using such a restricted palette without becoming formulaic or blasé?

Might not the scones be, in short, a little . . . stale?

Determined not to sink immediately into its warm depths and wallow as if in a delicious bubbly bath, I managed to keep a cool distance for at least five pages. And then, inevitably, I fell headlong.

He has, indeed, done it again. It's just as good as its predecessors. If anything, McCall Smith's observations of life in Edinburgh's New Town are sharper, more piquant than ever. I became as willingly entangled in the lives of his delightful cast of characters as in the previous instalments. And of course, like every hopeless addict - I just can't wait for more.

I confess I was a little surprised to see this book described on the cover as 'hilarious'. Hilarity is far too unsubtle a word for the humour found within its pages. Yes, there are occasional laugh-out-loud moments - usually when McCall Smith nudges over the line from 'wry' to 'wicked' (but, of course, only very gently so). How to judge whether one has married 'beneath' oneself, with reference to taste in paintings, for example. Or the 'correct' pronunciation of the place-name Gullane (and what those who say it differently might be revealing about themselves). Generally, however, the humour is of the warm rosy glow variety, rather than offering chortle a minute.

Since it is the myriad small incidents and deft observations which make The Unbearable Lightness of Scones such a joy to read, to quote even the briefest of passages would be a 'spoiling' exercise. Suffice to say that if you've enjoyed the previous four, then you will find here plenty to recognise and even more to surprise, including a wedding, a sudden unexpected death, further episodes in the saga of the blue Spode teacup, an illustration of the cathartic properties of men's moisturiser, a major discovery in the world of Art, and Cyril - the dog with the gold tooth - finally succumbing to a long-resisted temptation. There's also a guest appearance by a famous crime novelist, who solves a mystery, signs a form and goes on his way.

The usual suspects are all here, together with some interesting new characters, including a troubled antipodean psychiatrist and a Porsche-driving photographer. There are, naturally, some unresolved issues to whet our appetites for the next volume - among them precise fate of six puppies and the outcome of a precipitous proposal of marriage.

If you haven't yet encountered 44 Scotland Street, but have discovered the life-affirming characteristics of the author's Botswana novels, then you will find much to enjoy in this series too. It isn't strictly necessary to read them in chronological order, but I think that to do so would enhance the experience.


Cath said...

I must get around to more of McCall Smith's books. I've read about half of the Mma Ramotswe books and love them to bits. I'm sure I would like his other series too, in fact I found an omnibus of his called The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom in a charity shop recently. It includes the first three books about Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld and sounds like a lot of fun. So that'll be a start. The library has a lot too so there's no excuse really!

Anonymous said...

I have read all of these but have to say that I found the charm wearing a little thin in the last one. However, I know full well that resistance is hopeless and I shall go out and buy this one as well!

Anonymous said...

I'm chared by these books and will be reading this one soon. I can only hope that Cyril's temptation is what I think it is.

Unknown said...

I've been having fun with this book as well though some of it makes me wonder if you have to be Scottish or at least British to understand the fine nuances. I decided to reseach any bits that don't make sense to me and have found the reading so much richer when I stop and google. I hope you will check out the portrait of MacNab I've described in the first part of the book as it makes the that section of reading so much more enjoyable in my post on "muckle hairy sporan":