Imagine you are in a train. Think about all the other people on the train with you, what their lives are or have been, the different experiences you’ve all had. But there is one thing that you undoubtedly all share: you have all been in love at one time or another. In this story, four strangers share their different experiences of love…
That’s as much of the very chatty blurb I’m prepared to share, as I’m allergic to spoilers. So this is an episodic novel, with these strangers sharing their very personal stories – or in one person’s case, not sharing their story… But for me, the slice of the book that has lodged in my head was the Prologue – in fact I haven’t been able to get this extract out of my head:
Love is nothing out of the ordinary, even if we think it is: even if we idealise it, celebrate it in poetry; sentimentalise it in coy valentines. Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles or the diseases of childhood; it is 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.
p. 7, Alexander McCall Smith (Polygon Books, 2012)
I think the fact that these stories are told on the journey between Edinburgh and London is significant – many of us have been on a train journey where we have somehow struck up a conversation with those around us. While McCall Smith is often described as a ‘cosy and heart-warming’ writer, don’t go away with the impression that he is remotely interested in giving us the sentimental Valentine’s hearts and teddy bears version of love. Even the happiest story is shadowed by the fact that both people involved are dead and gone, with their life’s work also obliterated and their tale of love is being narrated by their daughter.
As ever, given that McCall Smith is the author, this isn’t a huge volume with only 191 pages of well-spaced prose. But what it lacks in physical heft, it makes up in the perfect pacing, interesting characterisation and nuanced storytelling that leaves us in no doubt that love is a chancy business. And maybe the reason why we keep revisiting romance over and over in our fiction, is because when loves strikes us, it so often isn’t the happily ever after we are promised in all the fairy stories. If you want a far more realistic, clear-eyed version then track down this book – I personally think it should be required reading for all idealistic pre-teen and teenage girls glutted on a diet of Disney and Hollywood romcoms.