Finally. After 3 years, I’ve finally finished the 44 Scotland Street trilogy by Alexander McCall Smith. I bought the first book during an unexpected ten hour delay in the Glasgow Airport a few years ago, and only discovered the other books recently, after a friend informed me that my letter to the author encouraging him to write a sequel was unnecessary. There are lots of reasons why I thoroughly adore these books. Not only did they provide much needed amusement during a very long wait in a very small airport, but Alexander McCall Smith never ceases to astonish me with his command of the English language and his ability to create the most unusual and endearing characters.
The series is also delightful because the first novel, 44 Scotland Street was an experiment by the paper The Scotsman to recreate the Dickensian novel. It was published in the newspaper in tiny chapters, which meant that each day the author had to write about 1000 words to keep the novel going. Oftentimes he wasn’t sure what was going to happen to a character until he had written it.. From the success of the first book came the second and third books as well.
Most importantly though, the books have also made me think about how literature can evoke a sense of place. Some of my favourite books, Honeymoon in Purdah, the works of Paul Theroux, and various travelogues of Makkah, are works that are explicitly about the author’s journey within a particular locale, and how the author discover the charms of a place in a manner that is connected to where the author is in their own life journey. The genre of travel writing in other words… The Scotland Street series however, are a series of novels that powerfully bring to life the city of Edinburgh, within the context of the lives of imaginary characters. Though the characters are not ‘real’, the effect is the same. I can visualise the train stations he describes, recall the quirkiness of Edinburgh, and experience little bursts of joy when i recall the streets he details. (Dundas Street! I remember walking there!) It is the same experience as reading Cornelia Funke’s description of Venice in the novel Thief Lord, except I’ve never been to Italy. Reading her description of characters that are clearly reacting and developing in ways related to the places they are in, however, is something akin to the 44 Scotland Street experience and is not a journey to be found in all novels. The travel-novel is unique.
The other journey that Alexander McCall Smith opens up for readers is a journey through the territory of language, and I always find myself encountering new phrases and words in his writings. This time I wrote them down and looked them up. Aren’t words lovely?
Commodious: spacious, roomy
Insouciance: the cheerful feeling you have when nothing is troubling you
Post-prandial: after mealtime
Panache: dash; verve
Soubriquet: nickname; a familiar name for a person
Otiose: serving no useful purpose; having no excuse for being;
Peregrination: travels, roaming
Quiescent: quiet, inactive or dormant.