Free Press Journal

The House of Unexpected Sisters by Alexander McCall Smith: Review


Title: The House of Unexpected Sisters

Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Publishers: Hachette India

Pages: 226

Price: Rs 799

Have you heard of Botswana? It’s an arid land in the thick of South Africa, landscaped by the Kalahari Desert. It can steal your heart with its warmth and introduce you to a set of simple people who can teach you a lesson or ten on basic etiquettes. But most importantly, Botswana is home to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency — one that has been an endearing read for everyone who has followed this series of stories by Alexander McCall Smith.

The 18th novel in the series, The House of Unexpected Sisters has tugged onto the reader’s heartstrings with an interesting plot and its iconic yet affable characters. This book begins with the dismissal of Charity Mompoloki. Under suspicious circumstances, she is asked to leave the services as a saleswoman at ‘The Office Place’ — an office furniture retailing company. Charity finds it difficult to support her children and her acquaintance — Mr Polopetsi introduces this case at his part-time work facility called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, headed by none other than the traditionally built Mma Ramotswe. Charity is expelled under the pretext of being rude to a customer. At first, you would think that the moral grounds laid by this little township are higher than almost all other lands with laws. Who would expel a saleswoman just because she has been rude to a customer?

Starting off with this puzzle, Mma Ramotswe together with her self-appointed Principle Investigating Officer — Mma Makutsi and Rra Polopetsi get onto this trail to unravel some mysteries related to Charity’s expulsion. To avoid conflict with Mma Makutsi who feels very strongly for Charity and their connection from the Botswana Secretarial College, Mma Ramotswe kick-starts a parallel investigation to arrive at a proper conclusion. In the process of uncovering the truth, Mma Ramotswe undergoes an emotional upheaval as she discovers a few personal truths that had escaped her notice over a cup of tea, some advice and slices of fruitcakes on one of her visits to Mma Potokwani. While the gentle Mr J.L.B. Matekoni makes an appearance in the book whenever Mma Ramotswe needs some advice or just some company, Charlie, the incompetent mechanic leaves you chuckling with his quirks and love for ladies. The notorious Violet Sephotho and Note Mokoti — Mma Ramotswe’s ex-husband make a cameo in this book as well.

But if there is something to learn from the good people of Gabarone, it’s the way they address each other and the respect that is doled out every time a person speaks to the other. Mma Ramotswe constantly puts herself in the other person’s shoes to understand what would be acceptable to say when. She often uses small talk and chit chats her way to get out of sticky situations whenever there is a chance of her hurting the sentiments of the other person. The book introduces you to characters you would love to get to know. Their banter makes for a light read: whether it is talking about the appropriate colour of men’s clothing as they drive around in Mma Ramotswe’s little white van or the topic of employee loyalties and their relationships with their bosses — each conversation is hilarious as you watch it unfold in front of your eyes. From Mma Makutsi’s bombastic points of view to Mr Polopetsi’s timid expressions, their confrontations of matters that they do not agree on make the read an utter delight.

Smith ensure that he uses dialogue in an extremely clever manner, trying to make you feel involved in the scene. It’s almost like you’re in the character’s head and are itching to tell off Mma Makutsi or laugh out aloud at Rra Polopetsi’s funny remarks. This is what adds to the reading experience of the book.

All in all, for all those who have been loyal to the series—the characters feel like old friends you’d like to visit every once in a while. Which is why a large part of the readers have waited year-on-year to visit Botswana through Smith’s mind. Having said that, the books can be read as

Standaloe stories as well, but the feeling of being an outsider to inside-jokes will seep in somewhere if you haven’t been privy to the past experiences of these beautiful characters imagined by the author.