The tenth book in this beloved author's consistently bestselling series featuring his insatiably curious, ever-delightful Edinburgh philosopher and amateur sleuth who now takes on a case like none she's had before: one with paranormal implications.
From a small town outside Edinburgh comes the news that a young boy has been recounting vivid recollections of a past life: a perfect description of an island off the coast of Scotland which he couldn't possibly know, and a house there, where he claims to have spent his former life. When the boy's mother asks Isabel to investigate his claims, she feels she must--of course!--help them learn the truth, and she and Jamie set off for the island. But finding the house the boy described only leads to more complicated questions. And when they learn the tragic story of the family who lived there, Isabel is suddenly faced with a situation of extraordinary delicacy that will require all of her skills both as sleuth and philosopher. (Meantime, back in Edinburgh: Will an elderly lothario take Grace, her stalwart housekeeper, companion and babysitter, away from Isabel? Would Isabel be able to manage without Grace?)
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ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and of the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and he was a law professor at the University of Botswana.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Give it back,” muttered Isabel Dalhousie.
“Won’t,” said Charlie.
“What?” asked Jamie.
It was one of those conversations in which two people are talking about different things—unknowingly—and a third tries to make sense of what is said. The setting of this exchange was Edinburgh, in a Victorian house surrounded by rhododendrons and a few leafy trees: an oak, several copper beeches, and a single specimen tree known variously as the dove tree or ghost tree. “Popular with doves,” said Isabel, adding, “and, I assume, with ghosts.”
If looked at from above, as from an intrusive, snap-happy satellite, the garden would be seen to be bounded on one side by a tree-lined avenue and on its three other sides by a high stone wall. This wall was a highway for cats and for Brother Fox, the fox who lived somewhere nearby and with whom Isabel from time to time communed—to the extent that foxes, in their reserve, will allow anybody to commune with them. The wall was also a parcelling-out, in neat rectangular shapes, of contested suburban territory—mine here, yours there, this shared. Beyond that wall were further gardens; then came roads and buildings of grey or honey-coloured stone, spreading out like skirts until they reached hills on one side and sea on the other. This was the North Sea, cold, blue, lapping at the jagged edge of the country, a reminder of where Scotland lay in the true nature of things; a place that was mostly water and wind and high empty sky; a place where the land itself seemed to be an afterthought, a farewell gesture from Europe.
Isabel was seated in a chair and her young son, Charlie, now almost four years old, was at her feet, under the table, a place that he described as his office and where he did his office work. Jamie, her husband—although she still thought of him as her lover—was standing near the large window overlooking the garden. The whole family was present and had been thinking, from their various perspectives, about lunch.
And thinking of other things too. In Isabel’s case, she had been paging through a current affairs magazine in which she had come across an article on the return of cultural treasures. Unsurprisingly, this article touched on the Elgin Marbles: we want them back, said Greece—everybody knew their position on that—while the British Museum, with typical British skill at changing the subject, seemed to be talking about other things altogether. But it was not these much-discussed Marbles that concerned Isabel—rather it was a paragraph about a Maori wood carving that long ago had been taken from a meeting house and had ended up in a museum in Berlin. This carving was of spiritual significance for the Maori and a request had been made for it to be returned to New Zealand. The holding museum said that it was considering the matter, but was still doing so two years after the request had first been made. That was the point at which Isabel, reading about it before she got up to heat the soup for their lunch, said, aloud, “Give it back.”
She had not addressed anybody in particular, although the advice appeared directed to the museum in Germany. It was one of those comments that we may utter to express strong views and that we do not expect to be overheard or reacted to. But Charlie heard it, and thought that his mother was telling him to give back the roller-ball pen that he had found and with which he was now beginning to draw small lines, tiny tattoos, across his kneecaps. He saw no reason to return the pen as it was his knees on which he was drawing; he understood that there was a general prohibition against graffiti, but this was himself he was decorating and that, he thought, was his business. It was for this reason that he said, “Won’t.” Not knowing any of this, Jamie had interjected with his “What?”
Isabel glanced under the table and saw what Charlie was doing. “Not on your knees, darling,” she said, slipping him a piece of paper. “We don’t draw on our knees, do we? Draw on that. Draw a fox.”
The idea appealed, and the knee tattoos were forgotten. She looked at Jamie. “I was reading about a carving in a museum that people want returned.”
Jamie nodded. “Oh yes. But wouldn’t it empty all the museums if we started to hand things back?”
“It would diminish them, perhaps—not empty them. Most museums have more things than they can show. The big ones have vast warehouses packed with treasures.”
Jamie peered at a thin rime of dirt on the window glass. An unusual wind had brought dust all the way up from the Sahara and dropped it across Western Europe, even as far as Scotland. He would have to wash the windows soon, as that was his job. Isabel was in charge of the garden, while Jamie did the windows and put the bins out on the street on collection days.
“Oh yes?” he said.
Isabel laid aside her magazine. “It’s interesting,” she said. “People like the Maori, and the Aboriginal people in Australia too, I suppose, see so many things about them as sacred. The land, the trees, river, carvings . . . And yet we don’t have any of that ourselves, do we?”
Jamie peered even more closely at the glass. He had washed that particular window two or three weeks ago; winds from the Sahara had no business coming this far north. Who bids the mighty ocean deep/Its own appointed limits keep . . . The words came back to him unexpectedly; he had been a choirboy in his time and choirboys remembered what they were obliged to sing, or some of it. Winds had their appointed limits too, he thought, not just oceans.
“Maybe we had lots of sacred places,” he said. “And then we just forgot about them.”
Isabel looked thoughtful. “Stonehenge? Iona? Those odd stone circles that you sometimes more or less trip over?”
“Yes. All of those.” He paused. “It’s not just people like the Maori who have ancestors. What do they call the other New Zealanders—the rest? People like Jenny?”
It happened that Isabel knew. She had a New Zealand cousin who had visited her several times and they had shared a memorable conversation about belonging.
“Pakeha,” said Isabel. “That’s the Maori word for . . . for us.”
“Pakeha have ancestors too . . .”
Jamie remembered Jenny’s visit. “I wonder what she’s up to,” he said.
“She’s writing a cookery book,” said Isabel. “And she still has that television show. The Creative Kitchen. She says that it’s very popular in Spain, for some reason. She’s dubbed into Spanish.”
But it was not Jenny she wanted to talk about; it was what Jamie had said about ancestors. “I suppose you’re right,” she said. “We all have the same number of ancestors, don’t we? We don’t go on about them, but we have them, surely. I mean, there’s no monopoly on ancestors. One can’t be ancestor-rich, so to speak.”
He left the window and came to sit down at the table, opposite Isabel. “It depends on whether you think they exist. If you think that they’re not there anymore—because they’ve died—as ancestors tend to do—then . . . well, then you can’t really have them in your life, can you?”
“So what counts, then,” said Isabel, “is whether you have an eschatological dimension to your Weltanschauung.”
For the second time in those few minutes, Jamie said, “What?”
She laughed. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist it. You can get your revenge by saying something utterly opaque about Wagner, if you like. Or, perhaps more likely, somebody like Schoenberg.”
“Escha . . .”
“Eschatological,” supplied Isabel. “And I use it loosely, and just to keep you on your toes. It’s more about last things, but I suppose the ancestors come into that.”
“Put it simply,” said Jamie.
“Well, if you think that we survive in some way . . .”
“After we’ve kicked the bucket?”
Isabel hesitated, momentarily brought up sharp by the thought that there was a bucket waiting to be kicked by all of them—including Jamie and Charlie; morbid thought, she told herself—we’re young, or sort of young. She decided to laugh, both at his use of the expression and as an act of defiance of mortality. “To use a philosophical term of art,” she said. “Yes. If you think we survive death in some way, then you may well be concerned with ancestors. But that depends on whether you think they continue to have any interest in us. That’s the important thing, I think.”
“You mean they may say, That’s it, goodbye?”
“Yes. And if they did, then there’s no point in talking about the ancestors. Yet a lot of people don’t think that way—they feel there’s some connection between their ancestors and themselves. They still feel somehow involved with them.”
“Watching over us?”
She thought so. “Or still occupying the places where they lived,” she said. “Hence the spiritual significance of place. Holy mountains—that sort of thing.”
Jamie nodded. “Some of my friends who play rugby talk about Murrayfield Stadium as sacred turf.”
“Well, it is a special place for them, isn’t it?” said Isabel. “Rugby is such a tribal game. All those men getting physical with one another. Painting their faces with the Saltire. Singing ‘Flower of Scotland.’ Bagpipes. Pure tribalism, surely.”
They were both silenced, perhaps by the realisation that anthropological observation applies as much to us as to them. From under the table there came a faint humming. They both recognised it at the same time as “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
“He loves that tune,” said Jamie. “Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Charlie.”
A small voice responded tunefully, “Half a pound of treacle.”
Jamie continued the nursery rhyme: “That’s the way the money goes.” And Isabel said, “That means nothing to him. He has no idea of money yet—lucky him.”
“Expensive,” said Charlie.
They looked at one another in astonishment.
“Prodigy,” whispered Jamie.
“Porridge,” came the small voice from below.
Isabel winked at Jamie. “His ancestors—his Scottish ancestors—ate an awful lot of porridge. Porridge links us to them.” She paused. “Porridge binds.”
Jamie remembered something. “Who’s that person you keep quoting—the one who wrote that book? The Art of Living?”
“Yes, him. You once told me something that he said about patriotism and food. What was it again?”
Isabel smiled at the recollection. She had not read Lin Yutang for some time, but she knew where he was on her bookshelf. That, she felt, meant that he had not been forgotten. “He said: What is patriotism but love of the food one ate as a child?”
He thought about that. “Very good. Yes, spot on.”
But she was not so sure; Isabel was a philosopher, and philosophers were distrustful of broad propositions. “Well . . .”
“No, he’s right,” said Jamie. “You love your country because it’s your country, because it’s familiar and it’s full of things you’ve always known. That includes childhood food.”
Isabel was prepared to concede that this came into it, but was it enough to explain why people—or some of them, at least—were prepared to sacrifice everything for their country, even their lives? But food was just a shorthand expression for the familiar. Was patriotism, when boiled down, merely a love of one’s own familiar things . . . above the familiar things of others? The familiar things of others, of course, counted for less, it seemed: people were usually patriotic in the face of the assertions of others—who also loved what they ate in their own, foreign childhood.
But even that, she suspected, was a reduction too far. What about people who were patriotic because they loved the values their country espoused? She remembered, as she asked the question, a conversation she had had years earlier with an elderly man in the Scottish Arts Club. They had got on to the subject of national characteristics and he had revealed that as a refugee from Central Europe he appreciated the kindness and tolerance he had found in Britain. “That is why I have become a British patriot,” he had said. People had forgotten that there had been many who thought that way.
She expressed her doubts to Jamie. “I think the food of childhood is probably just a metaphor for one’s people and place. I think that lies at the heart of patriotism. Our own people, our own place—that’s what stirs patriotism.”
Jamie looked thoughtful. “Maybe. But it sounds so neat and tidy, doesn’t it? It sounds so apt.”
“All aphorisms do. They must have a kernel of truth in them—somewhere—but they often don’t provide the full picture.” She paused. “I can imagine somebody like Lin Yutang getting up in the morning and thinking: What aphorisms shall I come up with today?”
Jamie laughed. “Like Oscar Wilde, perhaps? Can’t you imagine him getting out of bed in the morning and asking himself what witticisms he should let slip by breakfast.”
“I can,” she said. “Although I somehow doubt that Wilde got out of bed in the morning. These people tended to get up in the afternoon, I think. Look at Proust—also a rather louche character. He got out of bed in the evening, if at all.”
“All right—afternoon, then.”
“Yes, I can picture it. Oscar Wilde’s last words, of course, were very well chosen. I can see him lying there in Paris, contemplating the wallpaper with distaste, and thinking It’s almost time, I’d better come up with something good. And then saying, ‘Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.’ And then he went.” She sighed. “Except for one thing.”
Jamie grinned. He would have liked Oscar Wilde, he thought—in small doses. But it would have been exhausting to listen to him for too long. That was the trouble with very witty people—they tire the rest of us. Boswell, he had always imagined, must have found it rather wearying to be in Dr. Johnson’s company day after day on their trip through Scotland. Oh just shut up, will you, we’ve got miles to go and you keep coming up with these wise observations . . .
He frowned. “One thing?”
“They weren’t his actual last words. Apparently he said that a few weeks before he died.”
Jamie shook his head. “Nice try, though.”
Isabel brought the conversation back to Lin Yutang. She would look for his book that evening, she decided. “There’s something else Lin said that I must look up. He wrote an essay on flowers, I seem to recall, and he lists the conditions that displease flowers. Isn’t that a marvellous notion—that flowers should be displeased by certain things?”
“Flowers with attitude,” said Jamie. “Sure. But what?”
“I don’t remember everything on the list—in fact, I can only remember one thing he said flowers definitely don’t like.”
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