44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, 2005, 333 p including iv p Preface. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

 44 Scotland Street cover

The narrative of this book covers the lives of various characters inhabiting the titular property and those with whom they come in contact. In the building live Pat, a young woman on her second gap year; her landlord flatmate Bruce, a narcissistic chancer; Irene, a pushy mother, with Bertie, her saxophone playing, Italian speaking five year-old who just wants to be a normal boy; and Domenica, an older woman more wise to the world. Pat takes up a job at an art gallery run by an incompetent set up by his father. Along the way we meet Bruce’s boss, a mainstay of the local Conservative Association, his wife and daughter; Big Lou, who runs a pub in the same street as the gallery; and Dr Fairbairn, Bertie’s psychiatrist – not to mention author Ian Rankin. There are occasional illustrations (by Iain McIntosh) at least one of which gave away an incident yet to occur on the page.

The problem with all this is its genesis as a periodic publication, appearing daily in The Scotsman. As a result none of the scenes is ever fully developed, they are sketched not drawn, and there is too much telling in place of showing. The characters are insufficiently fleshed out, types, not individuals.

What plot there is centres round the authenticity or otherwise, the disappearance and recovery, of a painting which might be a Peploe; but this is exiguous at best.

McCall Smith perhaps betrays his leanings when he puts these words about The Guardian into the mouth of five year-old Bertie, “Because it’s always telling you what you should think.” Then again it might just have been so he could add the rider, “Just like Mummy.” And don’t all newspapers in effect “tell their readers what to think”?

McCall Smith’s writing is easy on the eye but undemanding on the brain as the whole enterprise is very lightweight, admittedly suitable for quick, and perhaps not necessarily attentive reading. Quite why it appears on a list of 20 Scottish Books everyone should read is beyond me, though. That it is The Scotsman’s list is a bit too much like that newspaper blowing its own trumpet.

Pedant’s corner:- “Matthew’s father, despaired of his son ever amounting to much” (no comma,) a missing quote mark at the end of a chapter – the same speaker started the next so that’s fine – except the chapter number and title came in between, an extraneous quote mark between two paragraphs spoken by the same person, “and there was not reason to imagine” (no reason,) “aren’t I?” (Grrrr. The speaker was Scottish, the phrase is, ‘Amn’t I?’) “She realised sounded grudging” (realised she sounded,) an extraneous full stop at the end of a speech quote when the framing sentence continued, Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “on the shore of their rivers” (shores.)

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  1. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith | Pining for the West

    […] Jack read the first Scotland Street book as it appeared in a ‘must read’ list of Scottish books, but he was less than impressed by it, mainly I think because it was so obviously meant for throwaway publication in a newspaper. You can read what he thought of it here. […]

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