No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

One of the websites I frequent, The Rabbit Room, has a "store" full of wonderful books, and invites their readers to post reviews. You may recall that I scored some free music back in November for my review of Life of Pi. Well, I noticed a while back that they were selling Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and as this has long been on our list of favorite books, I was looking forward to reviewing it. However, today I finally got around to trying it out, and found that it was no longer available in the store, and thus there was nowhere to record the thoughts that have been circling in my head. So I'm putting it here. In case you happen to wonder what circles around in my head. The joys of one's own blog:

The publishers have chosen the review of "The Miss Marple of Botswana" as their favorite tagline for this series of books. And as much as I appreciate both Miss Marple and Mma Ramotswe, this is no Christie murder mystery. Instead, mystery ends up as a vehicle for the real substance of the books, which is the rhythm of African daily life.

As a senior medical student in 2005, I was heading to a hospital in rural Zambia for a couple of months, and a good friend who had grown up in Nigeria handed me the first of these books to take along. He said that it took many of the things about Africa that westerners find frustrating and deals with them lovingly. More than that, it makes them endearing. Now I live in Kenya, and on a regular basis, things around me remind me of these stories, cue my imagination, and sets them in a new light. The things themselves don't change, but the light of my view of them did, and that for the better. Along a dirt road is an elderly man in a full three-piece suit. Little white vans pepper the crossroads of an urban center. African friends pause an extra moment to ponder a seemingly small matter, and I'm reminded of these stories.

In fact, this is one of the great virtues of story itself. Say what you will, a tour of the African savanna is just cooler after singing along with Toto or watching The Lion King, irrespective of how obtuse a commentary on actual African culture these might be. A medium successfully engages the imagination, and later, when you encounter something in "real life", you have the wonder of "this resembles that" part of my imagination. Aside from story, the only other way to accomplish this is nostalgia of some place, taste, or smell you haven't experienced for a long time. And this is because the objects of such nostalgia have become the story of our own lives.

This is not some escapism of conforming the actual world to that of the imagination. On the contrary, daily life is full of wonder that is missed, and it is only through such story that we recover small pieces of the wonder of the real world.

And the particularly amazing thing that McCall Smith accomplishes is that he engages the imagination on everyday life. You can turn to Hemingway for visions of big game hunts. You can watch Blood Diamond to hear about African heroism and terror. You can listen to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and capture some of the amazing musical rhythms. But everyday life is (shockingly) what I encounter everyday. And thus, because of Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, I can find wonder and grace in the everyday rhythm of African life.


Kimberly said...

Have you seen the tv series? I just checked AADL to get a copy of the book to read it now (sounds like a good read for vacation), and a tv series showed up as well... Glad ya'll are enjoying your visitors!

Anonymous said...

I think that I would like to get these books and read them before we come out in October. I too will check AADL. MOm