Alexander McCall Smith, famous for Mma Ramotswe, 44 Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie, introduced his new novel, Trains and Lovers (Polygon, RPP Â£9.99) at the Linlithgow Book Festival.Â 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 Â and The Canterbury Tales, McCall Smith introduces four travellers who tell each other their stories to while away a journey.Â 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.Â No story is told in its entirety and completed but each traveller questions and interrupts the tales of his or her fellows.Â The outcomes of individual tales remain uncertain until the bookâ€™s final pages, yet these remain four separate tales.
The four travellers are a mixed group.Â 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.Â Hugh met Jenny, the lover he came to doubt, when he alighted from his train at the wrong country station.Â Kayâ€™s parents earned their living tending a remote outback railway station. Â Trains took Andrew and his lover Hermione to Hermioneâ€™s domineering father.Â Perhaps however it is more about journeys and lovers, journeys into and out of love, journeys sometimes curtailed, sometimes unending.
Hughâ€™s story is disturbingly ambiguous.Â His headlong rush into commitment with Jenny becomes marred by a chance meeting with her ex-lover.Â 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.Â His contempt for Andrew is however apparent but the hubristic father faces a massive fall from power and status.
Davidâ€™s story, the telling of which taxes him enormously, is of unrequited, young love.Â 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.
Kayâ€™s story is of an entirely different form of lasting love, of love which faces hardship and tragedy but endures.Â It is an account of â€œordinary livesâ€¦â€¦ touched here and there by moments of understanding and insight, and sheer marvel.â€
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.