‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’ by Alexander McCall Smith
Reviewed by Roz Way
This is the first of McCall’s books that I have read. I did start the first in the series of ‘The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ but didn’t get very far. So when the opportunity arose to read this latest book I thought I’d give McCall another go, and in many ways I’m glad that I did.
McCall’s style is intriguing and it is this that either draws you in or leaves you seeking something else to read. There is a formality to his characters that I found extraordinarily comforting yet in my first attempt at reading the series it was this that put me off.
The presentation of each character is with the use of their full title and they address each other in a similar manner. In this sixth book of the series the main personality, Mma Ramotswe, is still known as such rather than by a more familiar name which you would expect to be used having spent so much time in her company.
Even Mma Ramotswe refers to her husband as Mr J.L.B Matekoni, leaving the reader with no option but to observe the same formality.
At first this irritated me. I thought that it kept you at a distance from the characters and therefore the situations they found themselves in. In many ways however it matches the core of respect and values that seem intricately embedded within the characters and their everyday lives.
Mma Ramotswe and her fellow characters present honesty as a simple, rational means of everyday living – returning a found coin to the police, attempting to stop market thieves rather than finishing one's tea in peace.
Almost methodically and without hype and over-emotion they resolve their own personal issues as well as those that are brought to the Detective Agency.
These are values that I am sure many would like to claim that they act upon rather than just hold, but rather than seeming preaching it is instead rather satisfying to almost 'know' such people.
There are little things which allow you to form a slightly closer relationship to Mma Ramotswe, her husband and her colleague Mma Makutsi. These moments are reassuring and allow you a little further into their lives, but you are still left somewhat out in the cold.
McCall does not invite you into their lives with open arms and there is no feeling of leaving a group of friends when you finish the book. You are simply stepping away from the window you were briefly allowed to look through.
'In the Company of Ladies' is far from a long book and the pace of the story (for that it what is feels like) keeps you wondering how on earth it can be concluded in so few pages.
There are many forks that stem from very little; the tearaway apprentice and his inappropriate relationship, the return of Mma Ramotswe's ex-husband and his hold over her, the de-bycycled man with the unfortunate past, and the event of the burglar with no trousers and the arrival of a pumpkin.
I presume that McCall purposefully interlinks some and leaves others unresolved – after all life is full of strands that are not always neatly finished off.
Yet you are left with a feeling that he could have said more; allowed the reader 'in' a little further.
Would it have hurt to find out whether or not the 'burglar' and the pumpkin were related considering that they start the book?
Having not read the other books I do not know if Mma Makutsi's search for a husband is an ongoing theme that followers are keen to see a happy end to – I presume that it is. Equally the issue of Mma Ramotswe's violent past at the hands of her ex-husband no doubt gives you more insight in to her character and why she is who she is.
Perhaps for those who have read all of the series they feel that McCall has provided them with another means of getting closer to the characters who have entertained them for now the sixth time. I did not feel this, but maybe this is my loss for having entered into the series at the last minute.
I have enjoyed McCall's style and how it draws you in despite first appearances. I feel as though I have been given some insight into these Botswana characters, how they live their lives and their respectful attitude towards others.
There is also an uplifting feel in the way that they view a difficult past, both their own and their country's, a notion that is succinctly expressed at the start of the book and which continues throughout:
“...there is no point in throwing up one's hands in despair. People had always done that – the throwing up of hands, the shrug – but one got nowhere in doing so. The world might have changed for the worse in some respects, but in others it was a much better place, and it was important to remember this.”
Does this book confirms or disproves the Western notion of the African woman through the eye of Mma Ramotswe?
It is difficult to say because in many ways you do not really get a clear sense of the whole
society that she is living in. McCall seems to hint that she is a 'traditional' woman with traditional values and ways of living.
You get a strong feeling that she is a very 'dominant' woman in that she has strong beliefs and that those around her respect her. But this dominance is learnt rather than dictated and it is clear that this is due to the love and friendship she offers those around her - even if it is in a somewhat formal manner.
I do not know if she represents a snapshot of the African woman's place in her society, but I get the feeling that she somehow represents either what 'was' or what the ideal is.
I think it would perhaps be difficult for women, especially young women, to manage to emulate her characteristics in the era that we are now in as they could seem 'old-fashioned' and 'un-cool' in regard to the cultures that we see today.
But as I said earlier in the review, many would like to say they had her traits, or at least to be able to say they knew someone with them.
I am not sure that my first reservations about the books have been entirely resolved. I think that you either enjoy McCall's style and stories or do not.
However, even for those in the former group, I do not know whether the format is capable of maintaining its hold for the whole series. Such small books with light 'stories' are ideal travel companions and bedside reading, but I would hesitate at expecting them to hold me for too long a time.
I cannot promise that I will read the other books in the series, though I may be more inclined to give them another go sometime - especially considering the affinity I feel towards some of Mma Ramotswe's views on the world, namely that it would be very difficult to marry a man who did not like tea.
The Reviewer is an academic and writer based at Lancaster University, England.