The Soap Opera is an ever popular genre of TV drama but to find a soap opera in print is rare. This might explain the popularity of Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street series. The latest edition in the series, Sunshine on Scotland Street, with its titular allusions to the song and subsequent musical Sunshine on Leith, returns to the famous fictional street and the home of Bertie, his parents, the irascible Irene, the stalwart Stewart, and their friends and neighbours.
The wedding of Domenica and Angus Lordie provides the backdrop to this edition of life on Scotland Street. For readers new to the never-ending story, the characters are quickly drawn and recognisable. For the returning fan, it must be like visiting old friends. The narrative is a plaid, thickly woven from both the serious, life changing events like the wedding and the trivial things, such as the silliness of chance encounters, lost cars, found dogs and the playground politics of Bertie and his school friends. It is all offered up with a profound McCall Smith philosophy, most clearly stated at the end of this book: “the idea that each of us… has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted … insight”.
At times, the narrative form borders on the urban fairy tale where the ridiculous, exaggerated escapades, such as Bruce and his new neighbour’s identity swap, serendipitous lottery wins and lost cars becoming art vie for credibility. At other times, the book smacks of Just William for grown-ups, touching on modern dilemmas of social media and internet fame, and old chestnuts like the pretensions of modern art. However it is described, the pages turned without notice. Reading this book is not exactly a rollercoaster ride or parlour run through the dynamics of middle classes Edinburgh, but it is a swift and companionable trip along a stream of conscious connections that weave together strands as diverse as the enduring animosity from the Glencoe massacre and how to repair a torn kilt just before the wedding. It is the stuff of soap but unlike some TV soaps, these stories have a feel-good ambiance.
Alexander McCall Smith is a canny observer and shrewd commentator on humanity. He brings his characters to life in just a few words. Writing here in the third person, with flashes of direct second person address, his narrator is omniscient to the point of articulating the dog Cyril’s thoughts and emotions, and even to understanding his reader. At times, the narrative voice seems too authoritative, is too all-seeing as he observes the lives and tribulations of his aspiring but child-like adult characters and their precocious children. That said, however, Smith’s now familiar style of wry depreciation is acute, sympathetic, and very funny. This narrative can be, at times, nothing more than a silly distraction but it is never a chore to read. Indeed, it can be thought provoking – how many of his readers will pause for thought as they close the book… there by the grace of… go I?