book by Alexander McCall Smith, reviewed by Sara Jenkins
SMILES AND SWEET SURPRISES: THE WORLD OF PRECIOUS RAMOTSWE
Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.
So begins a series of books unlike any I’ve read. That first sentence echoes the famous opening line of Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. But these books are a different proposition: postcolonial Africa, seen through African eyes.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and its sequels are set in contemporary Botswana. The central character is Precious Ramotswe, whose detective agency advertises as follows:
FOR ALL CONFIDENTIAL MATTERS AND INQUIRIES
Satisfaction Guaranteed for all Parties
Under Personal Management
The assets of the agency are two desks, two chairs, a telephone, a typewriter, a teapot, three mugs, and a tiny van: all a detective agency needs, the author notes, except, of course, human intuition and intelligence, with which Precious Ramotswe is abundantly endowed. She is also “blessed with generous girth,” or “traditionally built in the African style,” as she puts it.
Booklovers are thrilled to discover new authors we can count on to delight us with one book after another, and this series does just that. Mma Ramotswe has enchanted a wide range of readers. My 94-year-old mother, whose lifelong reading habit is sustained now by Talking Books, excitedly sends off for tapes as soon as each new title appears.
At first I found it hard to put my finger on what exactly makes these books so charming. Suspense, action, plot are low-key. Chapters sometimes meander. The writing style is admirably plain. But when it comes to character, Mma Ramotswe & Co. offer rare treasures. The assistant at the agency, for example, the thin, bespectacled, henna-haired Mma Makutsi, brings abilities beyond the 97% grade average she attained at the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills. The kind, dignified Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Speedy Motors, is a worthy companion for Precious Ramotswe; her first husband, a seductive but abusive jazz trumpeter, was not.
But it is the character of Precious herself that most vividly informs these stories: her moral clarity, her natural self-esteem, her shrewd sense of human nature. Her delightful amplitude of flesh has its counterpart in her generosity of spirit. The simplicity with which she regularly brews, serves, and sips bush tea, and the innocence and wisdom in her love of her country — because it is the only country she knows, and because it is “a place of peace” — reflect a spaciousness and ease to her life that are both admirable and enviable.
In the second book, Tears of the Giraffe, an American woman comes to the detective agency to find out what happened to her son who disappeared in the Kalahari desert. Describing her own years in Africa, the woman says:
People suffered here, and many of them had very little, but they had this wonderful feeling for others. When I first heard African people calling others — complete strangers — their brother or their sister, it sounded odd to my ears. But after a while I knew it exactly what it meant and I started to think the same way.
From a different point of view, Mma Ramotswe reflects:
. . . when [Nelson Mandela] walked out of prison on that breathless, luminous day, he said nothing about revenge or even retribution. He said that there were more important things to do than to complain about the past, and [he showed] he meant this by hundreds of acts of kindness toward those who had treated him so badly. That was the real African way, the tradition that was closest to the heart of Africa. We are all children of Africa, and none of us is better or more important than the other. This is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind it what it is to be human.
Aside from content, these books appeal on other levels as well. Beautifully designed, with classic typography and eye-catching covers blending traditional African motifs and handsome geometric patterns, they make wonderful gifts. I was delighted to receive a boxed set of the first three, which included the author’s retelling of an African folktale in a handsome booklet.
And then there are the intriguing African words: Botswana is the name of the country, Batswana the people, Setswana the language. Women are addressed as Mma, men as Rra, which my mother pronounced for me, since she hears the words and I only see print. And there’s the Limpopo River, beloved from the “Just So Stories” my mother read aloud to my brother and me as children. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books inspired my mother to find out more about Botswana, a remarkable and fascinating country, she tells me, free of problems that plague other parts of Africa.
For me, reading these stories overturned various assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. Most surprising, what I took to be a “women’s book” turns out to be written by a man, Alexander McCall Smith, a professor of medical law at Edinburgh University. I like to think that exposure to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency might also shift some of our common societal prejudices: Mma Ramotswe presents a very different feminine ideal — women who are not only smart and capable but good, and big and soft to boot.
I wrote to the friend who gave me the boxed set that, unlike someone who reported laughing out loud through the first one, I did not find the books especially funny, and I couldn’t quite say why I liked them. She wrote back that she didn’t laugh out loud either, but she did smile a lot. Yes, exactly.
Sara Jenkins is the author of This Side of Nirvana: Memoirs of a Spiritually Challenged Buddhist. Her next book, A Job, With Asparagus, is about work and love. A freelance nonfiction editor, she lives at Lake Junaluska.