Alexander McCall Smith
(Polygon, 2012); hbk: £9.99
First impressions often colour the perspective, and in the case of Alexander McCall Smith’s new novel, Trains and Lovers, the initial sense is of a self-help book most likely to be found close to the booksellers’ counter. The size, feel and appearance of the book give off that sense of introspection. McCall Smith is renowned for gentle, thought-provoking stories and this book also lends itself to those epithets. Nonetheless, this book achieves more than simply comforting those in need of a little self-help. It is a story – of four people, their thoughts and conversations on a single train journey – that, once begun, is hard to put down. The individual narratives are believable and, at times, even emotional. They take the reader through love’s variety, its ecstasies and its disappointments, and even to love unrequited.
The physical journey on the train and how these four have come to be around the same table is of little importance to McCall Smith, the narrative spending only the briefest of time on these details in order to set the scene. It is in the tales of love that each person recalls that the reader gains the true sense of distance travelled.
One feature of McCall Smith’s writing is the way in which he may seem to be evoking a more gentle and possibly a little out-moded world now past, because his stories rarely tackle more gritty and confrontational issues that preoccupy other modern writers. Yet he actually addresses a whole range of issues and moral dilemmas in ways that ask the reader firmly, but gently: “what do you think?” His situations are believable, the issues are real enough and McCall Smith offers the reader the space to reflect on their own views and attitudes. This ought not to surprise anyone given his background in Medical Law and bioethics; he avoids the danger of sermonising and moralising, instead just letting the readers think for themselves.
This is exemplified by an early exchange between the four where they come across the phrase, “try to be happy”. “Can someone try to be happy” asks Andrew’s mother? And so the discussion begins. Similar questions come up throughout the book, and answers are proposed by the four, but it seems always left to the reader to decide who they agree with, if anyone.
The conversation at the start of the novel where Andrew blurts out the purpose of his journey and his story of love strikes a false and contrived note; a conversation of such depth begun so quickly amongst strangers is perhaps, but that may say as much about my own social sensibilities as it does about the way that McCall Smith feels such a conversation might take place. Despite this minor objection, Trains and Lovers took on a life of its own once the dialogue began; I found myself swept along and thoroughly engaged with each tale of love and life.
Some readers will find this book too cosy for their taste; others may be surprised to feel so moved by an apparently simple set of traveller’s tales. For me, this book belies its cover and offers a story of substance and intrigue. In Trains and Lovers, McCall Smith treats his reader with respect; he does so without having to impress with gimmicks or resorting to a hyper-sensitised reality. That seems to me to be the mark of a talented author.