“Nothing really happened – and then everything happened.” This sentence, which begins Chapter 84, is the best descriptor I could find for the whole book. Of course, nothing ever happens in a 44 Scotland Street novel. That is, nothing in the eventful, exciting, murder/mayhem/fire/flood/havoc sense.
What really “happens” in a McCall Smith novel is that his characters, like pleasant but unobtrusive next-door neighbors, gradually merge into your life until you suddenly realize that you really care about them. It matters a great deal to the reader whether six-year-old Bertie gets to go fishing with his father or not. It is very important to us whether a supporting wall supports or does not. He even almost makes us care whether pygmies should be called “forest people,” for reasons of political correctness.
McCall Smith should write the textbook on how to reveal character. The greatest tribute to his skill is Bertie’s mother, Irene. It is unbelievable, until you read this series, to think that anyone could be so completely unconscious of what kind of person she is. Or that a writer, without one direct statement about her, could reveal her true character so clearly.
And check out Ulysses, who forever redefines the concept, “out of the mouths of babes,” as character information.
And as far as description goes, who but McCall Smith could make us enjoy two pages of what Cyril the dog smelled on the way to the coffee shop?
However, in this book nothing happens for quite a bit longer than usual. The opening hundred pages consist of a series of vignettes of all the characters. In this McCall Smith is hampered by his former successes. This is Volume 6 of the 44 Scotland Street series, and he has such a large number of lovable (and some hateable) characters that he feels he must give us a taste of each one. While all of these separate tales are enjoyable, and many give him the opportunity to indulge in some of his beautiful descriptive writing, this rather shotgun-like approach leaves us unsure of the focus of the story.
Then, once we finally figure out which the important plotlines are, we have wasted a whole lot of time and empathy on people who faded out and disappeared. For example, the interlude with Bruce and Lizzie, while as entertaining as the rest, is basically a distraction. We wonder if it’s an incident that didn’t quite fit in the book where those characters were more important. However, the author liked it too much to just throw it away, so he used it here, because Bruce has a small but important scene later on in this book.
In spite of nothing happening for so long, things really do happen in the end, and we really care that they do. This is a great read for a warm summer evening, when we don’t want to rouse ourselves from the hammock or from our feeling that, while all may not be right with the world, there are small victories going on all around us.
Recommended for fans of great descriptive writing and of the portrayal of wonderful characters, especially those of the 44 Scotland Street series. 4 stars out of 5.