The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

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The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The fifth book in the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has moved so far away from detection that it's difficult to include it in the genre. The series is becoming rather tired, repetitive and formulaic. Borrow it from the library if you want an easy read, but don't buy it.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: July 2004
Publisher: Abacus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 034911725X

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Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's finest (and only) female detective is just a little bit impatient about her engagement to Mr J L B Matekoni, the proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. She doesn't wish to put pressure on her fiancé, but she does wonder if they will ever get married. He's got other things on his mind though. The matron of the orphan farm wants him to raise some money by doing a sponsored parachute jump. Mr Matekoni has never even been in a plane. Meanwhile Mma Ramotswe is approached by the wealthy owner of a chain of hair-braiding salons, who wants the No1 Detective Agency to investigate not one, but four suitors.

This is the fifth book in Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Each time I read one I enjoy it to a certain extent but think that I probably won't bother with any more. Then I find one at the library and another sleepless night is filled. For me the series is endearing and amusing but not really compelling. After reading one of the books I've no great compulsion to find out what happens next to the main characters, mainly because the books are all very similar and a bit formulaic. To some extent, if you've read one, then you've read them all.

I can only assume that The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is going to run into severe financial problems before long. With each passing book the agency seems to undertake fewer and fewer cases whilst carrying the same overheads. The series began as a reasonable story of detective fiction, but has moved further and further out of the genre. What detection is done is all about intuition, luck and hunches rather than the patient collection of evidence and elimination of possibilities. In fact there's more about Mr. J L B Matekoni's philosophy of being a car mechanic than there is of detection in this book.

Although the books loosely form a series they can each be read as stand-alone novels. In fact, the two orphans accidentally adopted by Mr J L B Matekoni in the second book in the series barely feature in this, the fifth novel. They are about but I actually got to the stage of worrying about how they were being cared for. I have read the books out of order and they are no worse - and no better - for that.

The characters don't develop as the series progresses. Mma Ramotswe is a traditionally-built lady of sound common sense. Mr J L B Matekoni is a man of high ideals but rather indecisive. We are still being told at every verse end that Mma Makutsi (secretary and assistant detective) got 97% in her exams at secretarial college. It's like a joke that's been told too many times - it's now been running since the first book in the series. I have an urge to berate her for the 3% that she got wrong. The only rounded part about the characters is Mma Ramotswe's traditional build. The book is almost pastiche.

The story - I hesitate to call it a plot - moves along steadily if a little slowly. In truth it's not very complicated and could probably be compressed into a couple of paragraphs. What you buy though is not the story, but a snapshot of a calm and leisurely way of life, set in post-colonial Africa. Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and has lived in Botswana where this series is set. He's obviously drawing on his own experience (and love) of the country. It has been said that the series is patronising to black people and this is a difficult point to judge when you're a white person who has never been to Botswana. I'd hope though that the portrait of the people and the places is seen as affectionate rather than patronising.

The book's recommended if you want an unchallenging read. There's no sex and no violence, so I'd be happy to give it to any adult and even a child who is a confident reader. They might struggle with some of the unfamiliar African names and pronunciations but I think most would enjoy it. It's not recommended if you like your literature to be a little meatier or if you really want to read detective fiction.

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latoya said:

I do agree with this review . Every point rang true .That said I have truly enjoyed reading all installments ,(in order). It was refreshing and made me think about were I can from. Being Trinidadian living in Belgium it is easy to forget there are other ways of living.For this I would like to thank Alexander Mc Call Smith.