Saturday, October 11, 2008

The miracle you weren't looking for

kw: book reviews, fiction, mysteries, african setting

"Take me away, McCall, far, far away." The writing of Alexander McCall Smith reliably transports me to Botswana, at least the Botswana of his own mind, and puts me inside the heads of two warm, intelligent women who run a detective agency located in a car repair garage. The Miracle at Speedy Motors, the ninth in his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, brings the junior member, Grace Makutsi, a few steps closer to her wedding to Mr. Phuti Radiphuti even as her employer, Precious Ramotswe, grows in her own, somewhat new, marriage.

Mma Ramotswe and her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, have adopted a boy and girl from a nearby orphanage, and the husband is on the verge of mortgaging the garage to pay for medical work, and a possible operation, so the girl might walk. She is currently confined to a wheelchair. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency women are in the midst of finding the birth family of a woman whose adoptive parents died without disclosing anything about her past, and coping with the confusion they feel over a recent series of threatening letters.

In the midst of the story, I suddenly found myself wondering, how does one pronounce "Tlokweng"? Starting with the feel of my tongue in the midst of a word like "flintlock", I realized that Setswana must be one of the languages with click sounds. I have heard people speak !Kung, which is nearly all clicks (to my ear), and San, which is about half clicks and half sounds that are more English-like. So I go on, and return to musing over the full plate of mysteries facing the ladies of the Detective Agency.

I realized that there are ten characters in the whole novel, and a few bit players. With these as his palette, the author evokes a rich stew of African life. Whether the girl Motholeli walks is not the greatest miracle here, but the courage of the girl facing the unknown and unexpected hope that may yet be false hope; the unfounded fears of a young woman facing marriage; the new-found sibling for the client, who is suddenly found not to be a sibling, and how good that is. These exemplify the little miracles, the surprises of life.

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