06/12/2005

The Kalahari Typing School for Men (by Alexander McCall Smith)


I haven't read anything else by Alexander McCall Smith, but have heard and read several enthusiastic reviews of his series based in Botswana, featuring Precious Ramotswe, a lady detective. I gathered that each of his novels is complete in itself so decided to read this one, which is the fourth in the series, rather than worry about finding the first one.

It's certainly a bit different. Despite being about detectives, it's not a mystery or whodunnit type of novel. It's not remotely like a thriller - there's not a lot of action, and it's quite slow-paced. It's really more reminiscent of a village-type book, except that it's set in a small town in Africa rather than somewhere in the UK. There are snippets of information about Botswana throughout the book, mostly in the thoughts or speech of the characters, and they seem realistic. Mma (which appears to be the equivalent of Mrs) Ramotswe often deplores the changing, materialistic society that's growing up around her.

The title of the book relates to Mma Ramotswe's assistant, who decides to set up a typing school specially for men. That's one thread of the story. Another is about the young men who work in the garage owned by Mma Ramotswe's fiancé, Mr JLB Matekoni. Yet another introduces a competetive element - a New York trained CID detective who sets up an agency in the same town, claiming that men are better detectives than women. Then there's a thread about Mma Ramotswe's fostered children. Almost as an aside there are a couple of detecting subplots, but no mystery involved.

It's all quite well woven together, and the story flows reasonably as far as the plots go. What made it less enjoyable was the very stilted language style. Perhaps it was supposed to reflect the way that people with second language English would speak, or perhaps it's a quirk of the author. Whatever was intended, it wasn't a relaxing read as I kept finding that the style jarred, at least until I got used to it.

I also found the extreme formality very wearing. The author refers to all his characters by their titles (hence Mma Ramotswe), but in addition they all refer to each other equally formally, other than children. What's more, Mr JLB Matekoni is always referred to in exactly that way, even when his fiancée is speaking to him!! Surely no culture takes formality that seriously, not allowing someone to be on first name terms with their intended spouse.

There were places that made me smile slightly - one or two - but it wasn't the highly amusing style or anecdotes that the blurb (and some other reviews) suggest. Moreover, despite a great many thoughts being expressed in full rambling detail, the characters all seemed very one-dimensional. I really couldn't care about any of them, and while I read to the end to see how the various plots resolved themselves, it wasn't with any great enthusiasm.

Only just over 200 pages of relatively easy reading, and it was a struggle to finish in four days. Sometimes I simply couldn't stand more than a chapter at a time.

We have another book by this author, so I'll probably try it, but won't be rushing out to buy any more. Still, on the plus side, there's no bad language, violence or sex, so it's quite suitable for anyone of any age who wants to read it.

1 comment:

Steve Hayes said...

In Tswana, addressing people as Mma (Mother) or Rra (father) is not particularly formal, and people really do talk like that (sometimes), especially in small rural villages. In the big cities it's different.

I haven't actually read any of that series of books (yet), so maybe they are formal, and I haven't yet discovered it!