Alexander McCall Smith: Trains and Lovers

Alexander McCall Smith, famous for Mma Ramotswe, 44 Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie, introduced his new novel, Trains and Lovers (Polygon, RPP £9.99) at the Linlithgow Book Festival.  There is an enormously warm and engaging aspect to Sandy McCall Smith and his audience at Linlithgow hung on his every word as he proffered excerpts and details from a work which, from his pen, is unique in that, by its very structure, it is a one-off.

Utilising that oldest of literary conceits, reminiscent of The Decameron  and The Canterbury Tales, McCall Smith introduces four travellers who tell each other their stories to while away a journey.  He confessed that perhaps the conceit is increasingly anachronistic: the willingness to enter conversations with fellow passengers on trains is perhaps diminishing as we retreat into our I-pods and mobile phones.

It is a simple genre but he develops it in a contemporary fashion.  No story is told in its entirety and completed but each traveller questions and interrupts the tales of his or her fellows.  The outcomes of individual tales remain uncertain until the book’s final pages, yet these remain four separate tales.

The four travellers are a mixed group.  Kay, Australian, in her fifties, reminiscing of a childhood in the outback and of parental love which offered a model of solidity; the well-groomed David, with the appearance of one who had always had everything provided for him; Andrew, art historian, son of an Oban doctor, in his twenties, idealistic and gentle; and the tousle-haired Hugh, also in his twenties, who looked as if he might be good at boisterous, physical contact sports.

The subject of their tales is love and lovers but the book is indeed, as its title declares, about trains and lovers and trains play a part in each of the stories.  Hugh met Jenny, the lover he came to doubt, when he alighted from his train at the wrong country station.  Kay’s parents earned their living tending a remote outback railway station.  Trains took Andrew and his lover Hermione to Hermione’s domineering father.  Perhaps however it is more about journeys and lovers, journeys into and out of love, journeys sometimes curtailed, sometimes unending.

Hugh’s story is disturbingly ambiguous.  His headlong rush into commitment with Jenny becomes marred by a chance meeting with her ex-lover.  Suspicion about the very core of her identity is sown.

Andrew is the insecure Scotsman, in a world where his values are questioned by everyone across whom he chances in the London art world except by Hermione, the daughter of an immensely rich and powerful father.  His contempt for Andrew is however apparent but the hubristic father faces a massive fall from power and status.

David’s story, the telling of which taxes him enormously, is of unrequited, young love.  It is a tenderly told tale of young but lasting love, never reciprocated over the decades as David would have wished, of parallel relationships entered dutifully but without ultimate commitment, of an illusion maintained.

Kay’s story is of an entirely different form of lasting love, of love which faces hardship and tragedy but endures.  It is an account of “ordinary lives…… touched here and there by moments of understanding and insight, and sheer marvel.”

Trains and Lovers engages with love in all its contradictory aspects: marvellous or ordinary; lasting or brief; fragile or resilient; declared or secret; but always ultimately important.

Trains and Lovers: The Heart’s Journey is available from Amazon in paper and e-book

Published by

Alex Wood

Alex Wood has had a varied career in education. He started as an English teacher at Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School in 1973 and completed his school-based work as Head Teacher at Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2011. In between he worked in community education, was a Learning Support teacher, headed a behaviour support unit, was Head of a special school and worked in Edinburgh’s Education headquarters. He is a member of the Education Committee of St George’s School. Alex is now an Associate at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration (SCSSA) at Moray House and is Secretary of the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (SELMAS) as well as being a free-lance writer. His experience however ranges well beyond the worlds of schools and education. For seven years in the 1980s he was an elected member of Edinburgh District Council and he retains a keen interest in the political world. He has a long involvement in genealogy and family history, as a researcher, teacher and writer. He is a member of Edinburgh Common Purpose’s Advisory Group and of the committee of Linlithgow Book Festival. Although he has lived in Linlithgow for over 20 years, and in Edinburgh for the previous 18 years, he remains a loyal fan of his home town football club, Brechin City.

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