Thursday, January 5, 2017

Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith has produced another delightful novel, full of everyday wisdom. In this story, a Canadian woman hires Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi to uncover her past in Botswana, and the naive Mr. Polopetsi gets involved in a pyramid scheme.

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni's garage assistant Fanwell acquires a stray dog he can neither care for nor abandon. As usual, this generates conversation between the detectives, and as usual, both wax philosophical. Outspoken as usual, Mma Makutsi states categorically that dogs have no souls.

Mma Ramotswe quietly disagrees. Temporarily sheltering the animal while she works out what to do with it, she raises the topic of dog souls with her husband. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni muses on his belief that of course dogs have souls. For him, even cars -- at least old ones -- have souls.

"Do you think our souls grow as we get older?" asks Precious. Her husband's affirmative response comforts her. "Our souls," he tells her, "grow like the branches of a tree" and as more birds come to make their homes in these outward-growing branches, "they sing a bit more."

The scene with Mma Ramotswe's tennis-loving childhood friend the police superintendent is telling. Superintendent Bogosi initially doubted her decision to open the detective agency, opining that rather than paying good money to have problems solved, most people would "take them to their friends and ask them to do it for nothing." Now he tells his old friend that if she ever retires, she should come to the police, who will create a post for her, something along the lines of "Head of Difficult Cases."

As always, Precious Ramotswe is patient. She understands that it is sometimes wise to say and do nothing, and realizes that some people "do not want to find what they were looking for." Having seen it happen, she asks herself whether it is "because what they were looking for was not what they were really looking to speak." This insight helps her with the case of Susan, the Canadian woman who has returned to Botswana to seek some kind of resolution that Mma Ramotswe does not quite grasp. Thus, she decides to say and do nothing, telling Mma Makutsi that "Sometimes doing nothing is the same as doing something."

Unsurprisingly, her associate cannot understand this. Mma Ramotswe explains to her that "if you do nothing, somebody may feel the need to do something, and that means you're getting something done by doing nothing."

The book is filled with such delightful insights on ordinary problems: the intransigence of human pride, the insidious nature of doubts, the benefit of using lists to get things done. When the detectives clash over their views on Susan's case, they must resolve their own sharp differences of opinion. They manage when each admits that she has been wrong in a different way.

Solving Susan's case hinges on the question of forgiveness. After dozing during a church sermon, Mma Ramotswe awakens at the perfect moment. She hears the priest say to his brothers and sisters in the congregation that "Forgiveness is at the heart of the way we live our lives." We must teach our children that "if we do not forgive then we run the risk of being eaten up by hatred" that will "gnaw and gnaw away."

The minister's words are the final springboard from which Mma Ramotswe gets one of her sudden insights. Remembering what she observed when she took the client to her old home and used her detecting principle of watching "where eyes went," she understands what the Canadian woman hasn't told her. With Mma Makutsi beside her, she speaks the words that Susan needs to hear in order to achieve the resolution she is seeking.

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