Tuesday, December 29, 2015

44 Scotland Street

44 Scotland Street
by Alexander McCall Smith
Recommended Ages: 13+

A decade ago, the author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency came home from a party at the home of another author who was serializing a novel in an American newspaper, and penned an editorial lamenting that such projects aren't often attempted these days. His column must have touched a nerve, because an Edinburgh, Scotland newspaper immediately ordered a serial novel to be published in more than 100 brief, daily chapters. He wrote it, and here (under a single cover) it is.

The tale of this novel being written as a daily newspaper serial would, by itself, almost be enough to persuade me to read it. Knowing the author's work through his series of gentle, thoughtful, almost mysteryless mysteries set in Botswana pushed me the rest of the way. Set not in Africa but in Edinburgh - which, to a reader in Missouri, USA is scarcely less exotic - it directs the same eye for scenic detail, the same ear for character voices, the same mildly perverse sense of humor, and the same compassion for human weaknesses toward a gap-year girl named Pat, her narcissistic flatmate Bruce, her endearingly hopeless boss at the art gallery, Bruce's boss and his socially-climbing wife, the middle-aged lady across the landing, and the young mother downstairs who is determined to prove her five-year-old son Bertie a musical and intellectual prodigy.

Each newspaper-column-sized chapter brings the narration perfectly to its next point as these people's intertwining stories advance at a cleverly measured pace. Even while dwelling on small incidents, many of them within the minds of the characters, it doesn't seem to move slowly. In brief, intensely focused glimpses it shows us what is in their hearts and heads and lets us be frustrated with them, or for them, without hating anybody. Who wouldn't recognize himself or somebody he knows in this gallery of characters and their petty yet urgently felt problems? Who wouldn't laugh at lines like the one in which Matthew, the gallery owner, self-deprecatingly tells real-life author Ian Rankin (and I paraphrase), "There are art dealers and there are art dealers; I am one of the latter." This is only the briefest example I can think of among many passages that made me laugh exactly as hard as I needed to at that moment in my own life story.

I look forward to reading Espresso Tales, the second of so-far ten books in this series which, as far as I know, McCall Smith is still serializing in that Edinburgh newspaper. Meanwhile, I am already a good third of the way through the first book in his Isabel Dalhousie series, The Sunday Philosophy Club and, at the same time, an audiobook of his seventh Precious Ramotswe novel, Blue Shoes and Happiness. And there are so many more books in this freakishly prolific author's list of works that I'm just a little intimidated by the challenge of finding them all. But not by the necessity of reading them; not at all. No body of writerly work could be more welcoming or, indeed, more comfortable to dwell in, immersed from all sides as if in a bath full of fragrant oils and soothing salts. Don't expect me to come to the surface soon!

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