Recently I began adding book reviews to my history site, Lost in the Past , but I have decided to move my reviews to their own blog here, which begins with a review of the most recent addition to one of my favourite series of books.
I was never caught up in the adventures of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, perhaps because the setting is unknown to me but as soon as I had read a few pages of the first of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street stories I was captivated.
The tales of the residents of 44 Scotland Street, a fictional Georgian apartment block in a respectable part of Edinburgh, were first written as a daily column in the Scotsman and this style of short chapters concentrating on one character at a time is still adhered to in the ninth book of the series, Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers. McCall Smith’s wit and observation of the anxieties and foibles of middle class Edinburgh residents of the 21st century, echo characters throughout Britain who are striving for success and happiness in so many foolish ways. There is the pushy, assertive mother Irene, her long suffering civil servant husband Stuart, Bruce, the vain, empty headed estate agent, Domenica, an intellectual lady of taste but little tolerance and who could forget Cyril, the dog with a gold tooth belonging to empathetic artist Angus Lordie. Nearby is Big Lou’s café where some of the residents meet for coffee with insipid Art shop owner Matthew who always makes a loss even with the assistance of Pat, an earnest Art history student.
But the real star is Bertie, who in the latest book, finally reaches the grand age of 7. Bertie is a genius in spite of the yoga classes, saxophone and Italian lessons and regular visits to a psychotherapist lessons arranged by his mother. He longs to be 18 when he can leave home to live in Glasgow and do what he wants when he wants. He is sensitive, honest and kind and speaks with the bluntness of an innocent child.
I always wonder whether Pat’s father Dr Macgregor is actually Alexander McCall Smith’s alter ego for he is usually an observer of the lives of the others but in Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers he reveals an unexpected aspect of his private life and at last there is a chance that his daughter Pat will find happiness.
The humour is often to be found in the most annoying characters, such as Domenica’s erstwhile neighbour Antonia who turns up to stay uninvited bringing with her an Italian nun, Sister Maria Fiore dei Fiore di Montagna. The Sister is apt to speak in aphorisms such as, “The important thing about opera is that it is sung,” which is so unexpected that it makes her the centre of polite Edinburgh society. Matthew’s bête noir is his Danish au pair, Birgitte, who throws away his jar of marmite, his Patum Peperium and half a haggis, on the basis that they are inedible.
Much of the conversation is philosophical, among a group of people who seem to have so much more time than the rest of us. We quickly come to know and understand the characters through hearing what they believe about life the universe and everything.
There is a feeling of ends being tied and characters blossoming in this book and I feel that Bertie will soon be too old to speak pure, unadulterated truth but hopefully I am wrong and there will be more to read about this colourful disparate group of individuals.