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The lighter side of gender politics

21 August 2004

12:00 AM

21 August 2004

12:00 AM

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, pp.231, 12.99

The sixth in the ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series of novels is as delightful as any of its predecessors. Mma Ramotswe and her able assistant, Mma Makutsi (‘the most distinguished graduate of her year from the Botswana Secretarial College’ with a 97 per cent pass mark), continue to dispense true justice in a corrupt world while experiencing to the full the moral and emotional stresses of life. Cheerful ladies though they may be — and their virtues and foibles certainly cheer the reader — their triumphs over adversity do not come without a cost.

Their vulnerability, as well as their humanity, is what makes them so attractive. In this book both ladies are insulted by men: Precious Ramotswe by her appalling ex-husband, the bad-ass musician returned from Johannesburg, Note Mokoti, who has the effrontery to address the ‘traditionally-built’ Precious as ‘fat lady’, as well as to blackmail her; and Grace Makutsi by the conceited apprentice mechanic, Charlie, who calls her a ‘warthog with big round glasses’. In the long run, of course, neither male will be allowed to get away with taking such liberties. But both ladies respond to their respective insults in such a way as to increase one’s admiration of them — and of their creator.

For gender politics are at the heart of the ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series, as the title alone indicates. Despite her happy marriage to that good man and mechanic Mr J. L. B. Matekoni of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, McCall Smith’s protagonist is under no illusions about the male of the species and answers Mma Makutsi’s question about what men think about thus:

‘Men think about ladies a great deal of the time,’ she said. ‘They think about ladies in a disrespectful way. That is because men are made that way, and there is nothing that can be done to change them. Then if they are not thinking about ladies, they are thinking about cattle and cars. And some men think a lot about football too. These are all things that men like to think about.’

The theft of Precious Ramotswe’s precious but broken-down little white van from the side of a road does nothing to restore her faith in men, for the ‘tiny white van would not have been stolen by a woman, would it? … Men had a lot to answer for, she thought.’ Yet McCall Smith is far too subtle an artist to leave it at that (and of course he’s a man, too). Note Mokoti may be beyond redemption, but the apprentice Charlie is not — nor is the unluckily imprisoned Mr Polopetsi, who makes the most of his serendipitous second chance. The traditionally-built Mma Ramotswe already has her good man in Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, but what of Mma Makutsi with her big glasses: will her attendance at the Academy of Dance and Movement be rewarded with romance?

You’ll have to read In the Company of Cheerful Ladies to discover that. If you enjoy a well-rounded, teasing tale, full of humour and incidental insights, you will not be disappointed.

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