As an avid reader of Alexander McCall Smith’s other works, I was intrigued by his short story collection Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations. Best known for his crime series The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency set in Botswana, the British-Zimbabwean author has written more than a hundred books, many of which are set in his city of Edinburgh. Given that all the works of his that I have read, such as the Corduroy Mansions, 44 Scotland Street and Sunday Philosophy Club series, have used their serialised nature to allow McCall Smith to really develop the characters, albeit with few overarching plots between each novel, I was intrigued to see how this characterisation would progress in short story format.
Released in 2009, Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations features nine short stories, the longest of which – Bulawayo – is 61 pages, while the shortest – Fat Date – totals just eleven pages. The blurb describes how the collection features “a medley of perverse couplings, casual dates and romantic encounters…that will sadden, inspire and surprise”, but this didn’t quite prepare me for the cynical and twisted nature of the plotlines. McCall Smith’s other works deal in part with serious and sensitive topics, but often portray them in a delicate way, whereas Heavenly Date seems almost crude in comparison. I expected the book to be light-hearted reading in a similar vein to his other works, and while the style of narration was incredibly similar, the twists of the plotlines were puzzling and sometimes sinister.
Something that McCall Smith portrays especially well in his writing is a sense of location and the importance of locality – as shown by his representation of life in Botswana, Edinburgh and London in his previous works – and this is something that comes across in Heavenly Dates too. Despite the brevity of the stories, most not only mention their location but have it firmly implanted into the plotline. Wonderful Date is set in Zurich, Nice Little Date in Portugal and the titular Heavenly Date in Tuscany. Two of the stories included – Bulawayo and Calwarra – are even named after their location because it permeates the story and shapes the events so much. This sense of being and belonging in a place is what McCall Smith excels at somehow conveying in words, and this clearly comes across here.
While I enjoyed reading Heavenly Date and Other Flirtations, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Some of the stories were much more engrossing than others – though ultimately it is hard to create an engrossing and compelling read in a story only two dozen pages long. Within these narrow confines McCall Smith still achieved impressive levels of characterisation, making it a shame in some cases that the stories were so short and the characters would ultimately be lost. Overall I would recommend this book, in particular to those who have not read any McCall Smith previously – while a strange introduction to his work, it means that they would not be expecting anything along the same vein of his quainter musing in the Sunday Philosophy Club. The book intrigued and very much surprised me, and it is definitely the kind of book that provokes discussion – even if it’s just “can you really believe that that happened?”
Words by Grace Dean
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