Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review - Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

Short review: Precious Ramotswe returns, and in addition to the usual array of suspicious husbands and missing persons, she has to deal with a jealous maid and the addition of two young children to her life.

A long missing son
A deceptive professor
A grateful mother

Full review: Tears of the Giraffe is the sequel to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which manages to have both deeper mysteries, and spend more time focused on the day-to-day lives of the characters that inhabit the story. This novel has a more substantial detective story than its predecessor, which was mainly a collection of short vignettes, and it also explores the relationships between the characters more extensively. The novel also delves into the questions of selfishness and generosity, and what they mean for Botswanan society.

The novel can be divided into three broad stories. The first is the mystery brought to Mma Ramotswe by a distraught American woman seeking to find out what happened to her son who has been missing for a decade. Despite the time lapse and the fact that the matter had already been unsuccessfully investigated by both the police and previous private investigators, Ramotswe is taken in by the pleadings of a mother with nowhere else to turn for answers and accepts the case. Following the whisper thin trail left behind by the inhabitants of a failed agricultural commune, and using her now familiar method of extracting information by paying attention to the "invisible" people that populate the world - the secretaries, the house maids, the old women - Botswana's leading lady detective burrows her way to the man who knows the answer, and then compels him to tell her what happened so many years before. In the end, Ramotswe is able to provide answers for her client, and even a somewhat happy, although undoubtedly bittersweet resolution.

The second story running through the book concerns Mma Ramotswe's impending marriage to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. The story first deals with the negotiations between Ramotswe and Matekoni over which of their two houses they will settle in as their residence once they are married, and right away McCall Smith begins establishing what may be Matekoni's most prominent character trait other than his kindness: He is exceptionally easy to manipulate. Ramotswe almost immediately declares Matekoni's house unsuitable, and he immediately acquiesces to using her house on Zebra Drive as the couple's permanent home. But this is only the first indication that Matekoni's well-established kindness may simply be a product of wishing to avoid conflict. The reader is introduced to Matekoni's housekeeper, who Ramotswe notices hasn't been doing a very good job keeping the house clean, and who in turn takes an instant dislike to Ramotswe as a threat to her hold upon Matekoni. And it soon becomes clear that Matekoni's housekeeper has been taking advantage of him, and soon the full extent of her jealousy becomes clear when she starts seriously plotting against Mma Ramotswe. The only disappointing part of this thread is that it builds up a moderate head of steam before evaporating in a remarkably convenient manner.

But the manipulation of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is not done only for nefarious purposes, a fact demonstrated when he is maneuvered into adopting two orphaned children by the formidable Mma Potokwane, the matron of the local orphan farm. Almost without realizing what he has done, Matekoni has adopted a disabled girl and her younger brothers and committed himself and his intended bride to becoming parents even before they are married. And without consulting Mma Ramotswe either. This plot line also exposes one of the deficiencies of McCall Smith's writing, as the situation clearly holds the potential for some personal conflict - after all, a man who agrees to adopt two children without consulting his fiance, not matter how well-intentioned his actions are, is likely to find that he has somewhat taxed his intended's tolerance. However, when Mma Ramotswe finds out what has happened via a chance meeting during a shopping trip Matekoni had taken the children on, she immediately accepts that his decision was the correct one, and takes on the role of mother for the pair, even though she had no input into the decision to bring them into her family. But although this almost instant acquiescence to the new situation may seem odd to Western readers, it fits perfectly with Mma Ramotswe's insistence that "Botswanan morality" is a superior means of organizing one's life, because one of the tenets of that morality which is emphasized repeatedly in Tears of the Giraffe is the importance of being selfless and aiding others less fortunate than oneself.

The third story in the book focuses on Mma Makutsi, who Mma Ramotswe promotes to assistant detective at the agency and hands over one of the agency's cases to her. In this case, a man suspects that his wife is cheating on him, although he doesn't have any clue who it might be with. Mma Makutsi relies upon the same sort of methods for solving her case as Mma Ramotswe does for her - following the wife to find out where she goes and then talking to the housekeepers at her destination. The mystery turns out more complex than anyone originally thought, and poses a moral dilemma for Mma Makutsi, who isn't quite sure how to tell her client the news. In the end, she settles upon a solution that is innovative to say the least, although it doesn't seem entirely appropriate, a sentiment Mma Ramotswe vaguely shares, although she is too distracted by other concerns to address the matter.

The repeated theme that runs through all of these stories is what appears to be a fundamental tenet of Botswanan morality: One must act selflessly to a certain degree for the benefit of others. This is most clearly on display in the storyline involving the adoption of the orphaned siblings, but it also comes up in the resolution of Mma Makutsi's case in which she advises her client that he should accept his wife's actions because they allow for his son to gain the benefit of an expensive private education. When Mma Ramotswe arrives at Dr. Ranta's house, her belief that he is a reprehensible man is confirmed by his untidy yard and unswept house - indications that he does not employ a maid or gardener as all reasonably well-to-do Botswanans should so as to provide jobs for those less fortunate then themselves. Over and over the reader is confronted with the simple declaration that selfishness runs counter to Botswanan morality, and generosity, even when painful, is to be lauded and praised - even on the final pages where a metaphor using the tears of a giraffe is used to drive this point home. This thinking falls in line with Mma Ramotswe's general approval of traditional ways of thinking - traditional greetings, traditional deference given to elders, an affinity for traditionally built ladies (like herself), and traditional ways of handling agriculture. Overall, in most cases, Mma Ramotswe is in favor of traditional cultural mores, except where it comes to women's equality, and even there, her views are an amalgam of stereotypical prejudices and forward thinking, perhaps reflecting the views of a nation as a whole trying to find its place in the modern world.

As with its predecessor, Tears of the Giraffe is a set of interesting, although somewhat muted mysteries involving an array of ordinary people. Even the most "exotic" inhabitants in these stories are ultimately mundane: A college professor, a banker's wife, a missing son, a German farmer, and so on. Throughout the book shows how societal and familial bonds can survive even tragedy, and how those same bonds can be rotted and frayed through selfishness and disdain. Some people have criticized The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series as being simplistic, and on that point I must disagree. Though the stories are told in a straightforward manner using simple language, they deal with deep questions concerning human relationships and how they are structured, even though the humans involved are ordinary people doing ordinary things. Especially because the humans involved are ordinary people doing ordinary things.

Previous book in the series: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Subsequent book in the series: Morality for Beautiful Girls

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  1. This series is... quiet. The stories are interesting, not particularly compelling, but make for decent reading nonetheless. Now Remains of the Day? Quiet and compelling.

    1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I think that a large part of the appeal of the stories is that they are quiet. The characters have solvable problems, and they go about solving them. I think that the idea of people living ordinary lives being confronted with ordinary problems and then dealing with them in ordinary ways seems comforting.

    2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Another element that I like about these books is that the characters are Africans living lives entirely outside of the view of European or American observers.