Alexander McCall Smith
FIRST serialised in The Scotsman, Espresso Tales is the latest instalment of stories from the inhabitants of 44 Scotland Street. McCall Smith has delved once more into the colourful trivia of his characters' lives to come up with events that are at once everyday and charming.
By far the most engaging of these characters is six-year-old Bertie. Entrapped by his own precocity in his mother's regime of yoga, Italian lessons, saxophone exams and the politics of a Steiner education, he is the unwilling subject of the 'Bertie Project'.
While his mother, Irene, immerses herself in the psychoanalytic theories of Melanie Klein, and forces Bertie to sleep in a pink "space" and wear "crushed strawberry" coloured dungarees in an attempt to produce an un-gendered son, Bertie dreams of freedom.
He longs to play rugby, watch the trains at Waverley station, make friends and be 18 so he can escape his mother. Instead, she and his psychotherapist, Dr Fairbairn - whom Bertie believes to be deranged and en route to Carstairs at any moment - scrutinise his every move.
In expected psychotherapist fashion, Fairbairn brings his own neuroses to bear on the treatment of his patient. During his most noteworthy case study, of a three-year-old tyrant named Wee Fraser, he smacked the child in response to being bitten.
He remains desperately in denial of the guilt this has caused him, until Irene forces him to confess and find Wee Fraser to apologise, resulting in further assault.
Other characters provide tales that are less eccentric, though no less enjoyable. Ramsey Dunbarton bores his wife, Betty, into somnolence while reading her his memoirs. Pat tries to quell her feelings for Bruce, her vain egoist of a flatmate, while navigating the purpose and ethics of naturism at a nudist picnic in Moray Place Gardens. Big Lou ponders the big questions with the regulars at her caf; Domenica dispenses her worldly advice, assisting Pat in her ventures while contemplating her own. Angus Lordie brings bonhomie and his dog, Cyril, to the residence; and Matthew and his father, Gordon, negotiate their familial roles.
McCall Smith is fond of musing. His characters ponder the serious, surreal and silly. Big Lou engages Matthew and Angus in a debate on political passivity and aggression.
Dr Fairbairn attempts to construe the link between clothing and self-expression. Domenica holds forth on the characteristics of dog owners' nationalities and how they are reflected in the behaviour of their pets; and Bertie discovers the potentially lethal repercussions of veganism from his classmate, Olive, who informs him that Tofu's mother starved to death, and the only thing preventing him from doing the same is the ham sandwiches he steals at lunchtime.
McCall Smith's feelings towards his characters - whether they be contempt, pity, affection, sympathy or admiration - are written with light-hearted, teasing humour, and moments of ribaldry.
As an account of Edinburgh, Espresso Tales is a send-up by an insider, revealing the everyday lives of characters in a literary soap opera.
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