Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Abacus (11 Aug 2005)
Category(ies): General fiction
McCall Smith is probably most famous for his Southern African No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. However, he is an Edinburgh-based novelist who does sometimes write about his own culture. This novel is one of those.
Perhaps the most alarming thing about this book is his introduction, wherein he explains that he originally wrote it as a newspaper serial, a chunk each day. This means that it is built from chapters that are all quite short (perhaps 4 pages), leading to an effect where the texture can never really change. (In the culinary world, this is analogous to taking a steak and mincing it up fine for easier digestion - yes, this is almost a hamburger novel.) However, despite this, it does eventually work.
The novel is based in a block in Edinburgh. (A quick check with Streetmap shows it to be just north of the centre of that city, and supposedly a delightful area to live, only a few blocks from the art galleries, the castle and the botanic garden.) Our heroine is a gap year student (second gap year), who takes a room in a shared flat, while working in a nearby gallery. Other characters are the others who live in the same building, especially her narcissistic flatmate, their employees and associates, and briefly the novelist Ian Rankin (who I think we may assume was cameoed here by McCall Smith as a nod to a friend). Most of the humour arises from character observation, especially the self-absorbed Bruce and the pushy mother Irene who is wondering why her 5-year-old son seems to be resenting the Italian courses and Saxophone lessons.
The story is lightweight - there is no real room to develop anything deep in a format that requires daily advance. But it is a charming, though inconsequential, read