- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF SCONES

By Alexander McCall Smith

Anchor, $15, 368 pages

Reviewed by Muriel Dobbin

Once you get past the title, which has nothing whatever to do with the book, this is Alexander McCall Smith at his most charming, writing about a group of quirky Scottish characters in Edinburgh.

It’s the fifth installment of a serial on life at 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh, a city the author clearly knows and likes a lot. He makes clear in a note that if you assume he is writing about people he knows, you are correct. As he puts it, the book “is entirely true, or almost. There really is a Scotland street.” Happily offering clues to his characters, Mr. McCall Smith asserts, “Bertie exists - I have seen him and his mother on numerous occasions.”

Bertie, as you discover, is a highly intelligent 6-year-old boy with an obnoxious mother who insists that he needs psychiatric treatment because he sounds so much more sophisticated than most children in his age range.

This is partly because he reads the Scottish Field magazine in the therapist’s waiting room and absorbs enough of it to make conversation that convinces the doctor that Bertie’s mother may be right about her son’s unusual level of intelligence. Bertie is a nice little boy who wants desperately to join the Cub Scouts, but he is plagued by some nasty school friends, such as Tofu, who calls Bertie’s mother a cow, while Olive bullies everybody.

The assortment of characters is a mix of the merely unusual and the weird, with a dog named Cyril thrown in. Cyril has a gold tooth and has wanted for most of his life to bite the ankle of Matthew, one of his owner’s friends. When he finally does, however, risking an expected beating with a rolled-up newspaper, it is a gentle bite because Cyril is a gentle dog, and the surprised victim does no more than push him away.

It’s that kind of book. Some of it is what the Scots call pawky humor, which verges on the sardonic.

There is a romantic turn with the marriage of Matthew, leading to a dramatic account of how he is almost drowned in ocean riptides in Australia, threatened by a shark, rescued by a dolphin and then arrested for trespassing on a restricted area of beach.

The equanimity with which Matthew views the event probably tells the reader a good deal about the author’s capacity for graveyard humor because his character doesn’t sound as though he could have been quite so unruffled about coming close to death and declining to talk about it later.

The pages are full of oddities, such as a misplaced blue Spode teacup, a possibly stolen painting of Scottish national poet Robert Burns, a group of Glasgow gangsters and Bruce, a young man with good looks and a colossal opinion of himself who discovers his fiancee doesn’t share it.

The dark side of the author’s humor emerges again in an episode in which the owner of Cyril the dog has to find homes for six puppies and finds a taker for all of them. It strikes him as odd that the man seems to weigh the pups as he picks them up, and later he thrusts away a dreadful thought when he hears about premises where animals are on the menu.

Mr. McCall Smith, whose literary reputation is based on his best-selling books about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana, evidently has transferred his attention to Scotland, which is his home, and these stories have the mark of a diarist.

Anyone who is a neighbor of the author’s should be aware that he may be taking mental notes to turn into prose later. But he is a delightful writer, maneuvering with skill through the jigsaw of his characters. Probably the most unlikely of them is the Pretender, a purported descendant of Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who contributed heavily to the downfall of the Scots in their battles against the English in the 18th century. According to the author, there is still a lingering nostalgia among some eccentric Scots for their long-lost hero.

And in case the reader thinks things can’t get any weirder, there is the case of homemade marmalade suspected of being a narcotic. Marmalade has been called many things, usually by Americans who don’t like it, but nobody has ever suggested it has the properties of a hard drug. Makes it more interesting.

We can assume the author isn’t going to stop at just five accounts of life in Edinburgh, and heaven knows what he will devise in the sixth installment. Oddly enough, there isn’t anything in this collection about scones and their lightness, which would depend entirely on the caliber of the cook. Yet Mr. McCall Smith can be depended on to come up with a recipe.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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