Book review: Sunshine on Scotland Street By Alexander McCall Smith

Everywhere else in Scotland this summer, sunshine has been in short supply, but Scotland Street is different. The normal rules of meteorology, by which the country seems to be almost permanently covered by grey clouds from May to September, are suspended.

Sunshine on Scotland Street

By Alexander McCall Smith

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Polygon, 297pp, £16.99

Other phenomena can be observed: a sudden downturn in cynicism, a miraculous lack of grumbling about trams, and an all-round disappearance of dourness. This can only happen under very specific conditions, the main one being that it requires Alexander McCall Smith to sit in front of his computer and resume writing his gentle serial comedy set in Edinburgh’s New Town.

What passes for in plot in the 44 Scotland Street here strays more than ever towards the preposterous. In this, the eighth book in the series, for example, we are asked to accept the likelihood of a property surveyor (the über-
narcissist Bruce) accepting the proposition of a gay PR executive, who he has barely met but to whom he bears an astonishing physical resemblance that they should swap lives for at least a day. And this at the same time as gallery owner Matthew has become the subject of a fly-on-the-wall documentary made by a Danish film-maker or that Cyril, Angus Lordie’s dog, escapes and is rescued by Cardinal Keith O’Brien.

Yet who reads about Scotland Street for plot? That is the very last reason it has attracted its mass readership (and, since its successful Radio 4 adaptation in May, listenership). All of those people are drawn to it almost by the fact that it isn’t boringly real – like the rain this summer – but that it offers something else: a portrait of bourgeois Edinburgh that idiosyncratically mixes whimsy, wit and wisdom with affectionate comedy.

A lot of comedy is cruel, mocking and targeted. McCall Smith’s twists reality in the opposite direction, towards friendship and thoughtfulness, and that rarest of things, kindly caricature. The sun may not shine over Scotland, but in Scotland Street, which starts with a wedding under a cloudless sky and ends with a gathering of friends, there’s no gloom in sight.

FRANK COUGHLAN