Book review: The House Of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the 18th book in Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies Detective series and, like its predecessors, it effortlessly weaves strands of seemingly disparate narratives into a coherent whole. In this latest adventure, Botswana's first female private detective, Precious Ramotswe and her assistant, Grace Makutsi '“ who now styles herself principal investigating officer '“ look into the case of Charity Mompoloki, fired from her job at an office supply company in Gaborone for alleged rudeness to a customer.
Alexander McCall SmithAlexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

Precious’s abusive ex-husband, the trumpet player Note Mokoti, has resurfaced in Gaborone, and Precious’s chance discovery of a possible relative – a look-alike nurse who shares her last name – causes her to question her view of her sainted father.

The narrative touches on some sensitive subjects – not just marital infidelity, but also a dying woman’s revelation and the ways in which globalisation has come to threaten traditional ways of life in Botswana.

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But while McCall Smith has opportunities here to describe the most distressing of emotions, he gives equal space and thought to the tiny exchanges and misunderstandings that can upset his sensitive characters. A discussion about Mr Polopetsi’s green trousers, for example, and in particular whether or not the colour is suitable for men, is hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure.

The recurring jokes are all present, too, and are welcomed like the chorus of a favourite song: Mma Makutsi’s oft-mentioned impressive exam results at secretarial college; Mma Ramotswe’s traditional build and liking for cake; and Charlie the wayward mechanic’s obsession with fast cars and fast girls.

Most of all, however, it is the way McCall Smith captures the rhythms of speech which makes him a master of his craft. The dialogue transports the reader to the book’s hot, dry setting, and the gentle exchanges of mundane facts carry a weight of love and tenderness.

At first glance you might think that very little happens in these novels, but the pace mirrors the unhurried, considered approach that the detective gives to each case. Immersing yourself in Precious Ramotswe’s life seems to slow your heart rate while sharpening your senses.

Taking tea with his wife, Mr JLB Matekoni says: “It would be good to talk to you all day. To talk to you that is – not to other people. Talking to you Mma, is very… very restful, I think.”

*The House Of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith, Little, Brown, £18.99