Close Reading: Analysing a Simile in McCall Smith’s Text

In this short text, we analyse an excerpt from Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to reflect upon the effectiveness of literary devices in order to convey different themes, feelings or thoughts.

«We don’t forget, thought Mma Ramotswe. Our heads may be small, but they are as full of memories as the sky may sometimes be full of swarming bees, thousands and thousands of memories, of smells, of places, of little things that happened to us and which come back, unexpectedly, to remind us who we are. And who am I? I am Precious Ramotswe, citizen of Botswana, daughter of Obed Ramotswe who died because he had been a miner and could no longer breathe. His life was unrecorded; who is there to write down the lives of ordinary people?»

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

When it comes to writing, and, specifically, literary writing, authors have a myriad of devices at hand in order to convey in their texts a variety of themes, feelings, or thoughts. A writer’s raw material is (verbal) language, and that can be both an advantage and also a challenge. It is an advantage in the sense that we are all familiarised with at least one language, and therefore at first sight it could be thought that writing literature implies no previous knowledge other than at least one’s mother tongue. However, this is deceitful. In order to write and analyse fiction, one should not only have a clear knowledge of their first language: they should also be able to suspend the idea of language being only an effective tool for communication.

In this sense, a writer uses words in quite a different way. In a literary text, language’s priority is not communicating and, therefore, being “transparent,” “clear,” and “economical.” What matters in literature is not only what is said, but also everything that is hidden or implied. Those shadows or holes in the text, when being crafted thoughtfully and in a reflective creative process, make a distinction. At this precise point, literary devices enter the scene, as they help to shape language so that the writer can transform it and make the most of its polysemic nature.

Considering this, we can say that the simile the writer uses in the quote is highly effective. As a literary device, it allows the author to convey a certain kinetic aspect involved in the way memories seem to come and go in our minds. Also, the simile uses not only a very clear visual image (the sky full of swarming bees), but also appeals to other senses such as smell. This synaesthetic approach makes the device even more powerful, as it clearly echoes the way memories work: we do not only remember images, but also smells, textures and sounds.

All in all, it could be stated that the simile used by McCall Smith in the excerpt is definitely effective. By appealing to different senses, the device helps the reader identify with the sensation they can have when remembering something dear to themselves. Furthermore, we could also finally suggest that this simile’s potential relies on the fact that it states a theme that stands out in the forthcoming paragraphs: the importance of memory in the constitution of the different characters’ subjectivity.

About the author Soledad Arienza

Me fascinan las cúpulas de Buenos Aires y el hall del Teatro San Martín. Siento predilección por algunas estaciones de la línea A. Me gusta el verano. Amo la papelería, en general, y los cuadernos y libretas, en particular.

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