Authors: Alexander McCall Smith
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 Alexander McCall Smith
Map copyright © 2011 by Iain McIntosh
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division
of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division
of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in Great Britain by Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown
Book Group, an Hachette UK Company, London.
Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Excerpts from the poems by W. H. Auden appear courtesy of Edward Mendelson, Executor
of the Estate of W. H. Auden, and Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McCall Smith, Alexander, [date]
The uncommon appeal of clouds : an Isabel Dalhousie novel /
Alexander McCall Smith.
1. Dalhousie, Isabel (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women philosophers—Fiction.
3. Edinburgh (Scotland)—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6063.C326U55 2012 823′.914—dc23 2012020401
Jacket illustration by Bill Sanderson
Jacket design by Linda Huang and Brian Barth
This book is for Edward and Maryla Green.
,” said Isabel Dalhousie. And then she added, “Srinivasa Ramanujan.”
From his side of the kitchen table, Jamie, her husband of one year, lover of more
than four, looked up quizzically. “Mozart, of course, but Srini …” He attempted the
name, but decided he could not manage it and trailed off into a liquid melt of
and sibilants. Indian names, mellifluous sounding though so many of them may be,
can defeat even those with a musical ear. Jamie was accustomed to the stocky sound
of Scottish names, redolent as they were of an altogether more forbidding and windswept
landscape—those Macdonalds and Macgregors, Macleans and Mackays.
“Srinivasa Ramanujan,” Isabel repeated. “He was, like Mozart, a child prodigy. A genius.”
“I used to be so discouraged by Mozart,” said Jamie. “I suspect he has that effect
on any child who’s interested in music. You hear about how he was composing complicated
pieces at the age of five, or whatever, and you think,
I’m already twelve—which is ancient by comparison—and I haven’t written anything
And it makes you ask yourself whether there’s much point in making all that effort.”
He paused. “But what about this Srinivasa?”
“He was a brilliant mathematician back in his day,” said Isabel. She made a gesture
that indicated the earlier part of the twentieth century—or at least did so to her;
to Jamie it was no more than a vague movement of the hand. “He died when he was barely
into his forties.”
“Like Mozart. What age was he when he died? Thirty-five, wasn’t he?”
Isabel nodded. “Which prompts the usual thoughts of what might have been.”
“Of music lost,” said Jamie. He had noticed that people invariably said something
like that when the shortness of Mozart’s life was mentioned. What he could have done
if he had lived another ten years, another twenty … the symphonies, the operas …
Isabel reached for her teacup. “Yes. And in the case of Ramanujan, of problems unsolved.
But that’s not what interests me. I’ve been thinking of the parents and of their role
in their children’s lives. Mozart’s father spent a very large part of his time on
his children’s musical education. Teaching him to compose, taking him on those long
tours. A pushy father, if ever there was one.”
“And Srinivasa … what about his parents?”
Isabel smiled. “He had a mother to contend with. She doted on him. She said that he
was the special gift of the household’s private god. She was a mathematician too.”
“So the best chance of being a prodigy is to have an obsessive parent?”
Isabel agreed, but only to an extent. She believed in nurture, but she gave more weight
to nature. “You have to have the right genes in the first place. Mozart’s sister had
the same upbringing as he did, with the same musical attention. She became a very
competent performer but she was not a musical genius.”
Jamie looked up at the ceiling. “Imagine being Mozart’s sister …”
“Yes, imagine. That bit—the genius bit—has to be there somewhere in the brain. It’s
probably a matter of brain design, of neuro-anatomy. Mozart had it; his sister clearly
Jamie called that the
. Badness, he thought, was usually a question of faulty wiring; Isabel was not so
sure. “I read about a rather interesting case of mathematical genius,” she said. “Nabokov.”
“The author? The one who wrote
“Yes,” said Isabel. “Nabokov was a mathematical prodigy as a child. He could do elaborate
calculations in his head, within seconds.”
Jamie was interested. Musicians were often competent or even more than competent mathematicians—the
, perhaps, was similar. At school his best subject, after music, had been mathematics,
and yet he had always had to approach it slowly, even ploddingly. “How do they do
it? I just can’t imagine how it’s possible. Do they have to think it through, or does
the answer come to them automatically, just like that?”
Isabel said that she thought they had their tricks—systems that allowed them to make
seemingly instantaneous calculations, just as people with exceptional memories had
their mnemonics. “Some of it, though, comes to them instantly because they just
it.” She took a sip of her iced tea, and
looked at Jamie. “You wouldn’t have to think, would you, if I asked you what number
multiplied by itself gives you nine.” She smiled encouragingly. “Would you?”
“You didn’t have to work that out?”
Jamie replied that the answer had simply been there. He had, in fact, seen the figure
“Then perhaps it’s the same for them,” said Isabel. “The work is done at a subconscious
level—the conscious mind doesn’t even know it’s being done.” She returned to Nabokov.
“He was capable of amazing calculations and then suddenly he became ill with a very
high fever. When he recovered his mathematical ability had gone. Just like that.”
“The fever affected the brain?”
“Yes. Burned out the wiring, as you might say.”
They looked at one another wordlessly. Each knew that the other was thinking of their
young son, Charlie, now an energetic three-and-three-quarter-year-old; energetic,
but currently asleep in his bedroom on that summer morning that was already growing
hot. An uncharacteristic heat wave had descended on Edinburgh and the east of Scotland.
It brought with it not only a summer languor, but the scent of the country into the
town—cut hay, baked hillsides, heather that was soon to flower purple, the sea at
Isabel broke the silence. “So what exactly did he say?”
Jamie’s reply was hesitant. “I think it was something like this. You know those bricks
of his—the yellow ones?”
Isabel did. They had on them bright pictures of ducks
engaged in various pursuits—driving a train, drinking tea, flying in small biplanes—and
Charlie adored them, even to the extent of secreting one of them under his pillow
at night. One could love anything as a child, she thought; a teddy bear, a security
blanket, a yellow brick …
“There were twenty bricks,” Jamie went on. “We counted them. And he counted with me,
all the way up to twenty—which is impressive enough, if you ask me. But then I said,
‘Let’s take half of them away.’ I don’t know why I said it—I hadn’t imagined that
he’d be able to cope with the concept of halves. But you know what he said? He said,
‘Ten.’ Just like that. He said, ‘Ten.’ ”
There was more. “Then I said, ‘All right, let’s put eight bricks here and take half
of those away.’ And he said, ‘Four.’ He didn’t even seem to think about it.”
Isabel was listening intently. Had Charlie ever done anything similar for her? She
did not think so. He had asked some perceptive questions, though, and one or two of
them had startled her. The other day, apropos of nothing, he had suddenly said, “Brother
Fox know something? Know not a dog?” She had been momentarily taken aback but had
replied, “I think he knows that.” Then she had quizzed him as to why he had asked
her this, but his attention had been caught by something else and he had simply said,
“Foxes and dogs,” before moving on to another, quite different subject. For Isabel’s
part, she had been left with a question that had become increasingly intriguing the
more she thought about it. Brother Fox presumably instinctively understood that dogs
were not part of his world, but did that mean that he had some concept of
? Probably not.
“So then I tried something different,” Jamie continued.
“I took nine bricks and asked him to put them in three piles that were all the same.
And you know what he said? He said, ‘Three.’ He said, ‘Three bricks, here, here, here.’ ”