Journey of life: Louise Denyer reviews Alexander McCall Smith's Trains and Lovers
PUBLISHED: 14:26 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 14:26 21 October 2014
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Have you ever sat on a train and wondered about the identities and lives of the strangers of your travelling companions?
Observing people around you can be a fascinating and amusing way to pass the time – contemplating what they do, where they’re going and who they’re meeting at the other end.
Trains and Lovers is a short work of fiction by the amiable and established Scottish writer, Alexander McCall Smith. Reading it takes approximately the length of the train journey between Edinburgh and London – exactly the journey depicted in the book.
This trip, like countless others we all make, is clearly meant as a metaphor for the winding route our own lives take, and the places and situations we eventually end up in. While the train itself is described as being rather prosaic, it can be an agent for other experiences, including finding love, and is a recurring motif throughout the book.
This novel is the story of four people, all strangers to one another, who coincidentally meet on this train and who discover and meditate upon how love has touched each of their lives.
Across the world we have many centuries worth of literature about the differing nature of love that we can rely on to try and understand this shared condition, but each writer’s account sheds further light on our ability to comprehend what being in love actually means, so it seems we are never likely to tire of reading about it.
McCall Smith is a master of literary accessibility and turn of phrase. His writing has a melody that relaxes you and reading his books becomes an effortless joy. As a talented, scholarly and worldly man of mature years, his words of wisdom strike a chord and make you think more deeply about what it is to be human. He sets the scene of his story with numerous observations on what love is, and what it is not. Describing loving someone as “not wanting them to go away” is a touching yet simplistic example.
Through the brief stories of the four characters, the book covers different types of love, making it easy to relate to each of these narratives in some way. Andrew, in his mid-20s, is a recent graduate from Scotland whose degree in history of art has led him to an internship at a London auction house where he meets Hermione.
Kay is a middle-aged Australian woman on a personal pilgrimage in memory of her late father. The story she freely shares with her temporary companions is about how her parents met and the way in which love can blossom from the wilderness and friendship.
As he listens intently to the others, David’s introspective thoughts and memories demonstrate the fragility of unrequited love and how a person can spend most of their life desiring something that will always sadly be, for one reason or another, beyond their reach.
Similarly, the final character’s experiences look at secrets within a relationship and the importance of trusting a partner. Hugh and Jenny’s fatalistic romance considers the rare occasion when a completely unexpected connection is made with another person.