Although I finished this book in about a day, I’ve been stuck on this review for weeks. Could it be that I’ve moved on from the series? Could it be that McCall Smith is starting to repeat himself? Has he lost his magic?
Yes, yes, and yes, along with the added discomfort of lingering weirdness for reading a book written by an old Scottish white dude about a middle-aged African woman from Botswana. There’s just something that smacks of being interpreted and romanticized by the Other that doesn’t set well with me. Add story fatigue and I find myself pulling away.
The Limpopo Academy begins with Precious having a dream. Attempting to share the experience with Grace Makutsi, she is interrupted by Grace’s pedantic interpretation and unable to convey the portentous feeling she has. It segues to tea-time, interrupted by Mma Potokwane, the Orphan Matron. She is enlisting help in her struggle with Mr. Ditso Ditso, who has convinced the orphan board to build a formal dining hall for the orphans with the grant money they’ve recently received. Shortly after, Grace leaves to meet with her husband and the builder they are hiring. Meanwhile, Fanwell, one of the mechanic’s helpers, gets in trouble for taking a side job and experiences an inept legal system.
Limpopo goes on to distinguish itself from its predecessors when Mma Ramotswe’s mythic detective Clovis Andersen arrives on scene. It creates a wink-nudge reaction for the reader, who can see the detective is not famous, or even particularly clever, despite the admiring gaze of the women of the Ladies’ Detective Agency.
In retrospect, the subtext in the detective’s (in)competence plot is insulting. Yes, it tries to be gently funny, but in the end, all it serves to do is show how wisdom comes out of naive faith/ uneducated natives. Ugh. Now I’m really annoyed.
Dr. Siri has spoiled me (The Coroner’s Lunch) when it comes to genre-bending detective fiction. Cotterill, as Siri’s creator, contextualizes the story in regional and national political events, and if Dr. Siri occasionally is bitter, it is because it comes out of disappointed love and early participation in the emancipation of his country. In McCall Smith’s Botswana, however, very little is given context or reality base–if it wasn’t for the rare one-line reference, it would be difficult to historically place the series. The Precious tales take on folk-tale proportions, and I feel like Africans deserve more than another veiled Anansi story. McCall Smith should be starting to challenge the readers with more information and context, not less.
Instead of the ‘talking shoes’ of Grace and Precious’ endless repetitive admiration for her father, perhaps we should know more about how the explosion of cattle-farming is ruining the eco-system and the land (plus, long-term father-worship is a little creepy when it doesn’t come with any other family or venerated-ancestor framing). Grace selecting building materials for a house hints at the economic explosion in one of the more stable African nations, but we don’t get that context, and indeed, [ it only serves to highlight corruption (hide spoiler)]. Truly, the only hint we get is the laborer who is afraid of losing his job and therefore his visa, but as a sub-sub storyline, the focus isn’t there. I want McCall Smith to root us in the real, so that as we identify and admire, we also learn instead of romanticizing or judging.
Ultimately, the writing in this edition fails to distinguish itself in lyricism or narrative. The portrayal of Grace is heavy-handed and lacks compassion for the woman who worked so hard in secretarial school for the “97th per cent” as she struggles with the builder’s sexism. The opposition in each of the small tales is the kind of grasping greed or incompetence most readers will be familiar with: influence, bureaucracy, the legal system, graft. Not to say that human nature isn’t the same everywhere, but the villainous behavior is simplified and familiar; almost declaring that by becoming ‘first world,’ Botswana is leaving its ideals behind.
I started reading “The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency” because of the unusual heroine, the unexpected charm of the language and the insight into human nature that comes from living in a small, close-knit society (hello, Miss Jane Marple!). McCall challenged the reader to a great degree in the early books, especially with Precious’ abusive ex-husband, the prevalence of orphans and social dynamics. Unfortunately, not only is ‘Limpopo’ not a capable entry in the series, it is one that reminds the reader of the giant disconnect between storytelling and reality.
Two lack luster stars out of five.