Book review: Trains and Lovers; Alexander McCall Smith

Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Dan Phillips
Edinburgh author Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: Dan Phillips
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Alexander McCall Smith puts four strangers on a train and takes them on a journey of revelation

Trains and Lovers

By Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, 224pp, £10.99

By all the rules of realism, all the conventions of storytelling, Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel about four strangers on a train who tell each other their life stories between Waverley and King’s Cross ought to be an embarrassing failure.

Even if – and it’s a big if – you accept the idea that such a thing would happen (especially if, as here, three of the four are men), then their conversation would be just that: a conversation, not four barely interrupted stories. Structurally as well as thematically, it would be tentative at first, and even if it did gradually build up momentum, it would soon spray off into myriad tangents, each one taking it further and further away from emotional depth. That’s just the way we are, as strangers on trains, especially on journeys that begin in such emotionally reticent cities as Edinburgh. Even before there were trains, we’ve always been like that too: in real life Chaucer’s Canterbury-bound pilgrims would surely have had their tales mangled and mauled, if not altogether wrecked, by their fellow-travellers’ interruptions.

So when McCall Smith is writing about Andrew, a young man from Oban travelling down to London to take up a job at an auction house – where, as an intern, he has met the love of his life – McCall Smith has to do a lot more than just tell that story. He has to show the reactions of the other three: David, a middle-aged American, still in unrequited love with a boy he met when he was 15; Kay, an Australian whose parents’ story is one of almost impossible mutual devotion and heartbreak; and Hugh, whose affair begins accidentally and ends in an acute moral dilemma. In telling their stories, as well the usual challenges of establishing credible characterisation and four intriguingly different backgrounds (in three different continents) McCall Smith has set himself a battery of technical challenges. He has to shade the conversation into four discrete stories, each with its own internal dialogue, to interrupt these stories in a way that doesn’t derail them, and he has to do all of this so unobtrusively that the reader doesn’t even notice, so that there is no shuddering jolt as the conversation switches tracks.

McCall Smith does all of this so confidently that the reader forgets the essential unlikelihood of four complete strangers unburdening themselves so completely. One reason is that one of them doesn’t: David’s story, of the unspoken love he has carried across the decades for Bruce, the 15-year-old he met at his parent’s summer house in Maine, remains something he keeps to himself. People wouldn’t understand, he reckons: for all their talk about empathy, about seeing the world through someone else’s point of view, those are just easy words: really understanding is just a pretence.

But is it? That’s the question that haunts this book, which is the best thing McCall Smith has written so far. The loneliness David carries within him isn’t the opposite of love, but part of it. There may be moments when love blossoms like a cherry orchard, but in the vast scheme of things, and certainly in the face of death, that’s all they are – moments. Kay’s story is the one that comes closest to making the case for love. Her parents had led the kind of lonely lives in which love never seemed to stand much of a chance and then, just before her father gets a job running Hope Springs, a railway station and siding in the Australian Outback, they meet and marry. Hope Springs becomes their life: they run it with hard work and affection. Her mother plants out Namaqualand daisies next to the platform: when the Alice Springs train stops, passengers get off and some take pictures of each other in front of it.

It’s at this point in the book that one realises McCall Smith’s skill as a storyteller. He doesn’t give many details; he doesn’t have to. There is a tragedy, of the kind that could happen quite easily in the Outback, but Kay’s parents bear it and carry on. Then they die, and when she goes back to that now-abandoned station and sees what’s left, the writing has the elegiac simplicity of the very best short stories, the ones that swoop right into the heart of someone else’s life and then right out again.

So yes, these stories are told better than their protagonists would ever tell them in real life, underpinned as they are by that rare combination of moral seriousness and playful wit that informs most of McCall Smith’s prolific work. But they remind us that, even when he moves away from the series fiction that has made his name, even when he sets himself new challenges, he is a virtuoso storyteller whose tales from the human heart remain very definitely on track.