Saturday, 20 April 2013

Book Review: Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith

Trains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith

Has a complete stranger ever told you their life story in the course of a train journey?

Many of us have endured terminally boring anecdotes from the person we've had the misfortune to sit opposite, but on the whole I find that fellow travellers like to keep their heads down.  These days most people are far more interested in their phones, i-pods and i-pads, and would apparently rather communicate to their families the news that they are 'on the train' than enter into any conversation with other passengers.

Alexander McCall's novella 'Trains and Lovers' asks us to suspend disbelief, in that his four protagonists not only board the Edinburgh to London train with no obvious electronic gadgetry, but are also prepared to launch into monologues about their pasts - monologues which, incidentally, the other three almost never interrupt - how often does that happen?

Putting these quibbles aside, however, I found myself quickly drawn into the characters' lives.  We meet Kay, who has come to Scotland from Australia to visit the home of her deceased father; Andrew, who has fallen in love with a rich man's daughter, and Hugh, who has encountered the enigmatic Jenny on a station platform.  The only one of the four who says little is David, an American whose story we learn only from his thoughts - thoughts of Bruce, a boy he knew as a teenager in Maine.

The story I enjoyed the most was Kay's; her father Alec leaves Scotland in 1946, and eventually becomes the station master at Hope Springs, an aptly-named outback halt on the line from Adelaide to Alice Springs.  He finds a wife through a penfriend agency; Alison, much to his amazement (for she is from Sydney), loves the outback and plants flowers between the casuarina trees.  Their life together brings tragedy as well as happiness, all of which they work through together:

' father and my mother, who didn't ever get anywhere very much or achieve great things.  Other than a well-kept station and some flowers in the desert.  Is that enough?  I like to think it is.'

David's wistful musings on what might have been if he had had the confidence to reveal his feelings to Bruce are as touching as his knowledge that those feelings would never have been reciprocated. As ever McCall Smith excels in the details that bring a scene alive;

'He did not like the way (the lobsters) were killed...

"They don't feel it", said his father. "Lobsters don't feel things."

Adults lie, he thought.  They lie about lobsters and a whole lot of other things.'

Some of the narratives are a little less convincing; Hugh's in particular stretches credibility more than a tad in its efforts to explore the concepts of identity and trust.  This is, however, classic McCall Smith territory; his Scotland Street characters often end up in situations so bizarre (think of Domenica in the Malacca Straits) that their stories are only rescued from farce by the author's deadpan delivery and gentle humour. Isobel Dalhousie's ('The Sunday Philosophers' Club') comfortable life is so chock-full of fortunate co-incidences that I doubt Camelot would let her buy a lottery ticket.  At times McCall Smith's writing borders on magic realism, though I imagine he might prefer to call it Edinburgh Entertainment.

The book's subtitle is 'The Heart's Journey', and like so much of McCall Smith's work, it is fundamentally all about love - love reciprocated, love unrequited, love's total dependence on trust.  McCall Smith's faith in human nature, his easy ability to find the glass half full whilst still acknowledging the fragility of our happiness - these are the qualities that make his books such uplifting, encouraging reads.  This is a story that I have thought about very much since I finished it, which is surely the sign of a book worth reading.


  1. The only books of his I have read are about the female dective agency and I didn't like them very much.I do like books like this one where we find out about people's past. Train journeys were more fun when people spoke to each other.Great review.

  2. Thanks so much Anne. This book is quite different from the No1 Ladies Detective Agency, and very easy to read. I borrowed it from the library. Have you tried his Scotland Street books? If you know Edinburgh (or even if you don't - I first read them when I lived in Aberdeen) they're very entertaining.