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January 22, 2010

An admission and some understanding

I have an admission to make, one that will win me no friends. And while usually I do not knock the books I hate here, this book is so well-loved, I think it can take it. I HATE The Number One Ladies Detective Agency. I got this book free out of a cereal box in 2003 (true story!), and have received it as a gift no less than three times since then. I read it once and found it so boring, I found it offensive, not credible as literature. And I know this will rankle many a reader now, because people love Precious Ramotswe and Alexander McCall Smith, but for the life of me, I could never undertand why.

Until now. I get it now! I still hate The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, but I think my love of Flavia de Luce and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is analogous to how other readers must feel about Precious and Number One… And not just because they’re both books with colonial flavour, written by old white men in unlikely voices (whether they be those of Botswanan lady detectives, or eleven year-old English girls). I think neither book is meant to ring especially true, authenticity is not the object, that these books get by on their charm, and charming is most definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Stay tuned for a review of Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie from the perspective of this beholder. I loved that book indeed.

8 thoughts on “An admission and some understanding”

  1. BabelBabe says:

    ok, i feel less guilty for admitting hating Sweetness now because I hated No 1 Ladies also.

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    This is interesting, because the author Bradley is constantly compared to is Alexander McCall Smith.

  3. Kerry says:

    I know! And having loved the Bradley book, I can now understand how someone could like Smith's (although I still hate it). It was quite the revelation.

  4. The Chapati Kid says:

    Hm. I like Precious, although I can see why she may be disliked as a character. I find the voice and the characterisation to be authentic, if a little stereotypical of small-town African women. I always loved Miss Marple, and to me, Precious Ramotswe is a South African Miss Marple. I also love that she drinks so much rooibus. I think it is little character notes like those that make her memorable to me.

    I can also see the difficulties in a politics of a middle-aged white male writing a middle-aged black female. But there's something about his prose that's feels so effortless to me, and at the same time, so full of love for what he writes about. It's something I "feel", not something I "think" when I read his prose. He also talks about issues that face African women on the continent from a very feminist perspective, which I find interesting. Not to pull an I-know-better with this, but I spent a significant amount of time working and travelling in East Africa, and there many dialogues taking place in urban-rural environments that he gives voice to, especially that of women's traditional roles being subsumed by more legitimate roles as wage earners. Negotiating these new waters is very tricky in patriarchal societies, and all that I heard and discussed echoed again when I read the book.

    At the end of the day, it's a feel-good novel that people don't read too deeply into. Perhaps I did more than I should have. Although I'm glad to say I didn't find it lacking. And I give points to anyone who can deliver me a cultural study without trying to extract tears out of me, a la The Kite Runner. (Which, kill me now, I found far too melodramatic.)

  5. Kerry says:

    K, but I bet your connections to Africa are part of why you love the books. Just as my bookish enthusiasms are what turned me on to Sweetness… I don't think either of these books mean much all their own, and that their appeal is referential. Which doesn't make lessen the appeal of them, but is still worth noting.

  6. Melwyk says:

    Isn't that funny? I love both these books (and authors). But I don't think of them as at all similar; I wouldn't really make a comparison except that they are both older men writing women's voices.

  7. Frances says:

    I recently re read The no 1 Ladies to find out why I loved it so much that I guzzled up the whole series.
    I was surprised to find that it was darker than I remembered.
    On the whole tho', this, Sweetness, and the Guernsey Literary Society all seem to me to have the qualities of simplicity, charm and quite interesting story lines.

  8. Kerry says:

    You're right about Guernsey– I hadn't thought of that one too. Booklovers' crack, that stuff.

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