Tuesday, May 13, 2008

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies:"It's sort of like... a mini-Macbeth!"

Alexander McCall Smith is now officially my hero. I'd read about three of his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, but for some reason I didn't quite realise how brilliant they are until I listened to the audio book version of In the Company of Cheerful Ladies.

No doubt, much credit must go to Adjoa Andoh, for reading absolutely brilliantly. The accents were perfect, and she did a fantastic job portraying all the different characters.

I suppose I should give a potted summary: Mma Ramotswe is a detective. In fact, she is the senior detective at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, where she works with her secretary and assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, and later with the assistant assistant detective Mr Potokwami, who is very cool. They share their workplace with Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, proprietor Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni. This book is about their trials and tribulations, including Mma Ramotswe's having to deal with a blackmailing former husband, Mma Makutsi's attempts to meet a man by going to a dancing class, Mr J. L. B. Matekoni's problems with his wayward apprentice, Charlie, and so on and so forth.

From the very start of the book, when Mma Ramotswe inadvertently squashes an unknown intruder who is hiding under her bed thanks to her "traditional" build, you just know that it's going to be warm, funny, and best of all - it's going to have a happy ending. Sometimes you just need a good happy ending.

One of the greatest things about it is the way it portrays Motswana people and life. I'm no authority on the matter - I have spent three weeks in Africa and didn't visit Botswana. I also don't want to assume that all African peoples are the same or similar, because I know they're not. However, from what I know and also what a friend from Botswana told me, it's a very accurate portrayal of life in that part of the world. When I was reading it, I could smell it - that scent of desert and dust and animals and people that just says to me Africa. It's a beautiful thing.

I just love everything about it. It meanders around, and you kind of want it to just get on with the plot from time to time, but the plot isn't the point, so it doesn't really matter. You welcome the long and fairly irrelevant digressions because they develop the characters more, and if you don't like brilliant characterisation then you're reading the wrong book.

My favourite quote is when Mma Ramotswe says to Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni "You are a very great mechanic, and that is enough for anybody." This quote embodies for me what is so very wonderful about this book. The characters don't aspire to money or power, they just want to do the very best they can do in everything they do. They are proud of their achievements and don't long to prove themselves to others. Mma Makutsi's pride in her score of 97% in the exams of the Botswana Secretarial College is an example.

It's a story of human decency. Good people, doing their best to be good people. Facing up to the bad things in the world and trying to make things better. Upon reading this book, I actually understood for the first time what forgiveness is all about. Mma Ramotswe finds it within herself to forgive the man who, when he was her husband, beat her and treated her terribly. Now he tries to blackmail her and destroy the life she has painstakingly built for herself. This scene literally brought tears to my eyes.

It's a feelgood story, that's for sure, but we all need one from time to time and it doesn't make it any less meaningful.

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