Onyx reviews: The
Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith
Of such trivial and ordinary incidents is life composed. A young boy
joins the Cub Scouts and suffers the unwanted attentions of
a classmate who fancies herself his girlfriend. A woman suspects her neighbor
has pilfered her blue Spode china tea cup and concocts a scheme to get it
back. A young couple embark on a new life together as husband and wife. The
owner of an art shop acquires a potentially important and valuable painting with
a sketchy provenance. A man must deal with the repercussions of his
dog's roving eye. A vain man's rise in social status ends when he discovers that his fiancée
has been stringing him along. A woman must make a difficult decision when her
boyfriend's obsession with political conspiracies approaches madness.
books of the 44 Scotland Street series—this is the fifth—are written as
a daily serial for a Scottish newspaper, which means that the chapters are
all the same length. The end result isn't so
much a novel as a collection of incidents, reminiscent of a British TV serial like EastEnders or Coronation Street. Plots emerge
and are resolved, with no single storyline lasting the entire span of the book.
Crises arise and are dealt with. The characters live
unremarkable lives, for the most part. The biggest problem in Angus Lordie's
life at the moment is the box containing six puppies—the progeny of his
faithful companion Cyril, the dog with the gold tooth and an unhealthy
fascination for the ankles of Angus's friends—that is delivered to his
door. Of all the incidents that transpire in The Unbearable Lightness
of Scones, this is the one that has the least rewarding outcome. McCall hints that the man who takes the puppies off Angus's hands
had some nefarious design on the animals, but readers never discover if that was the case. Such is life.
Matthew marries former teacher Elspeth Harmony and takes an
adventure-filled honeymoon in Perth, Australia, where he has an unusual and
unsettling encounter with a dolphin and is almost incarcerated. On their way
back to Edinburgh, they stop off in Singapore, where Matthew makes a disturbing
discovery about his family. Back home, he takes possession of a painting that he
attributes to one of Scotland's most famous portrait artists, and the subject
is also a Scottish national treasure. The fact that the painting came from a
known Glaswegian mobster and is probably stolen complicates matters.
former students, six year olds with unusual names like Tofu and Hiawatha, have their own small scale adventures. Bertie's overbearing mother
Irene (described as a "cow" by some) continues to drag
her son to weekly psychotherapy sessions, while his father sits passively by,
unable even to recall where he parked the family car.
Bertie makes a startling and unwelcome observation about the resemblance between his younger brother, Ulysses, and his former therapist. However, that man
has pried himself free from Edinburgh for an endowed chair in Aberdeen, which
has Irene in a tizzy. Bertie's father, perhaps for the first time in their
marriage, defies Irene and allows Bertie to enroll in the Cub Scouts, an
organization Irene regards with suspicion.
While on a Cub Scout outing,
Bertie has a amusing encounter with Ian Rankin, who is the victim of a crime.
Bertie and his friends act as Baker Street Irregulars, helping Rankin resolve
the affair while poking some inside jokes at the crime author along the way (one
of his books is seen in a used bookshop window on offer for a mere £1). These
are highly precocious youngsters, and their dialog and thought processes at time
seem a tad too advanced for their age.
The books in this series are steeped in
Edinburgh culture, history and lore. In his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency
novels, McCall Smith usually takes pains to explain references to readers
unfamiliar with that part of the world. Not so here. McCall Smith mentions
persons and events in ways that will render entire chapters incomprehensible to
readers unfamiliar with them. Anyone who doesn't know about Jacobites, who
believe that the current monarchy is illegitimate and that the Stuarts are the
true heirs to the throne, will likely be confused by the sections involving Big
Lou, whose boyfriend is currently hosting a "pretender" to the throne.
references that will likely be unfamiliar to people outside the U.K. include
mention of Watsonians (fans of a British football club) and the illegality of
calling something marmalade if it contains anything other than citrus fruit.
When some characters are on stage, the text is littered with Scottish brogue
that will challenge the ear and the understanding of the casual reader who isn't
up on his Robert Burns (words like "clype," for example).
his Botswana novels, McCall Smith includes very little serious crime in the 44
Scotland Street books. If these were crime novels they would be called cozies.
The resolution of the theft of the blue Spode tea cup will be as familiar as the
punch line of an old joke. Though Lard O'Connor is a mobster of some repute, and
veiled threats are made about the disposition of his painting, that's about as
dangerous as things get.
The anecdotes are bolstered by ruminations by various
characters, who wax philosophical about the nature of life. These aren't
diatribes or lectures but rather pithy homilies that rise organically from the
events that inspired such reflection. McCall Smith has beliefs about the
way people should live and behave, themes that he raises again and again in his
novels. Issues of character and manners and friendship and country. The
Edinburgh of his novels is a vastly sunnier and rosier place than the city
depicted in the books of Ian Rankin, for example.
This philosophy is
reflected in the brief discussion of scones that gives rise to the book's title.
Angus criticizes Big Lou's scones as being "sturdy," whereas he is of
the opinion that in Edinburgh "people prefer, perhaps, a slightly lighter
scone." He goes on to say that a scone can "never be too light,"
perhaps fending off in advance any criticism that the same might be said of his
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