Review by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
Strangers united serendipitously by a train trip make delicious fodder for writers. Think of what Agatha Christie did in the book Murder on the Orient Express. No murders in Trains and Lovers, however, but when your characters are contained in an inescapable environment…voila!… you have a plot! No need to invent ‘chance’ meetings. And even, as in Trains and Lovers, it is a relatively short train trip – a mere four hours – it gives McCall Smith ample time to create a compelling novel.
Who has not loved McCall Smith’s serialized works of fiction: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, featuring Precious Ramotswe, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Corduroy Mansions series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs trilogy and the 44 Scotland Street series? Wasn’t it wonderful when The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency became an HBO series starring Jill Scott? The expansive Botswana landscape illuminated, the quirky characters given life and the African colors portrayed in all their brilliance.
It had been a while since I read anything by McCall Smith, having read all the books of The No. 1 Ladies Detective series as it was published. But after reading Trains and Lovers, only his third stand-alone book, I am hooked on this author again. McCall Smith’s writing genius is in the way he takes the blank slate of four disparate people sitting together on a short train journey and, not resorting to murder or violence, creates a deceptively simple, yet spell-binding novel.
On page one,
“This is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who met on that train, and of how love touched their lives, in very different ways.”
Andrew, Kay, David and Hugh meet on the train travelling from Edinburg, Scotland to King’s Cross Station in London.
Andrew, a young, Scottish, art student, describes how he fell in love with Hermione, a fellow museum intern. Young love is so much fun and they enjoy it to the fullest, until Hermione’s father, an arrogant, wealthy investment banker, decides that Andrew is not good enough for his daughter and does his best to destroy the relationship.
Kay, a woman in her fifties, describes how her Scottish father met her Australian mother in the town of Hope Springs, where he served as the station master. Love begets tragedy as the couple struggle to raise a family so far from medical attention. Kay fondly recalls her parents love for each other and growing up in the Outback.
Hugh, a young Englishman, tells a beguiling, mysterious story of an affair with Jenny, a woman he met at a train station after he missed his connection. He lived in Edinburgh, she, a teacher, lived in Gloucestershire, and yet, they nurture a consistent relationship, travelling to each other’s homes every week-end. While on a romantic get-away to Paris, they run into an old flame of Jenny’s. With time the tiny cracks in the relationship caused by this chance meeting grow larger, threatening to break the bond completely.
The passenger with the least to say is the American, David. For most of the trip he carries on an extensive inner dialogue about a love for his boyhood friend Bruce, a love that was never reciprocated. Now in his forties, he has never revealed his true feelings for Bruce. And he has never gotten over it. Despite being a successful man, his sadness is evident.
“Love is nothing out of the ordinary, even if we think it is; even if we idealize it, celebrate it in poetry, sentimentalize it in coy valentines. Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles of the diseases of childhood; it is as predictable as the losing of milk teeth, or the breaking of a boy’s voice. It may visit us at any time, in our youth, but also when we are much older and believe we are beyond its reach; but we are not. It has been described as a toothache, a madness, a divine intoxication – metaphors that reflect the disturbing effect it has on our lives. It may bring surprise, joy, despair and, occasionally perfect happiness.”
The love stories each passenger tells weave, crisscross and run parallel, just like train tracks. Refreshingly, McCall Smith does not resort to cliché. None of the passengers fall in love with each other. Each passenger takes the others on a journey through time, place and memory. The telling is straightforward and unemotional. Solutions are not sought, nor given. There is no arguing, no political discussions, no critiquing; no one tries to ‘fix’ another with unasked for advice. These are four polite, eager listeners who appear to have nothing better to do on this short train journey than listen to a stranger’s story. Now that is refreshing!
Are the passengers changed by hearing the stories? Once they disembark, the stories stop and we don’t know. But perhaps we are stirred to think about an intimate love story of our own, one that has been lost in our memory.
“He [David] smiled goodbye to Andrew and Hugh and to Kay, these people whom he would never see again. And they smiled back and they shook hands, surprised, touched by the intimacy of the conversation, and by the lives laid bare.”
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of more than 50 books, including children’s books. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and lives in Scotland.