Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

#61 in my book challenge for the year was Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, the sequel to his wildly successful novel, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. A kind friend gave it to me ages ago, and it languished on the shelf because I bought new books, or something came in at the library. But after re-reading In Cold Blood, I felt the need for a sustaining book, and thought this might suit my mood.

Alas, I found the book uneven. The main characters from the earlier book were back, and I found them aggravatingly unnuanced. Precious Ramotswe was so insightful she barely had to do any detective work. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was kind. Mma Makutsi was clever. In fact, there were no complex characters. Each person had one defining characteristic, and that’s all there was to them, and it identified them as either bad (e.g., the wife-beating ex-husband Note Mokoti) or good (e.g., Precious’s late father Obed).

The main mystery, the fate of an American boy who disappeared ten years before, seemed to turn on a mistake. When Mma Ramotswe investigates, she finds “a newspaper photograph–a picture of a man standing in front of a building. There had been a printed caption, but the paper had rotted and was illegible.” (p. 93) She puts the fragile paper in her pocket.

Yet twenty pages later, the photograph includes multiple people, and has names on it. Mma Ramotswe determines that one man in the photo is evil, and traces him easily by the name on the paper. While the mysteries aren’t critical to one’s enjoyment of the books, this inconsistency was surprising and sloppy.

One of the strengths of the book is the small details of daily life in another culture. Sometimes these are incisive, as when the characters muse on the futility of revenge, the connectedness of people, and the meaning of family and place. At other times the author seemed to be making clowns of his characters, as when they wondered at Freud (since all men should love their mothers) or Madame Bovary (who should have been content married to a boring man, who would provide for her.) Many of the comments were sexist, e.g., that men are disorganized and women are hard working. There was also a great deal of nostalgia for a past that supposedly had better manners and values, yet no insight into why things changed, or ironic awareness that some of what was good about the past might have been a result of otherwise unlamented colonialism.

This book gave me some things to think about, but at the end, its flaws outweighed its merits. It provoked my critical consciousness repeatedly. While I understand it was trying to champion simplicity of life and values, I think instead it was too simplistic in character and narrative, and this undermined for me its message of culture difference and appreciation.

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