|Alexander McCall Smith has a long history of being able to evoke a sense of place, set with deceptively simple characters in his prior humorous and warm novels. In this, his latest story, it takes very few words to place the reader on the train from Edinburgh to London, a trip of four hours.
European train travel offers compartments, a closed area generally with six seats, three facing three, which is the setting for this entire story. In that compartment are a Scotsman, an Australian middle-aged female, a British male and a middle-aged American patron of the arts.
As sometimes happens the passengers begin talking with one another; and the story starts as the young Scotsman, Andrew, makes an innocuous comment about a fishing boat they are passing. Kay, a fiftyish Australian woman, joins in and she draws him into a conversation about where he is going. From this point Andrew starts by "spilling" his story about why he is going to London and digressing to parts of his life story about his romance with Hermione. The author is exceptionally clever in the doing of this as it is not only about Andrew and the part a train in an art work changed his life, but how the other passengers reacted to the telling of his story.
His story reminds David, the middle aged American, of a train platform where he witnessed two men hugging when saying goodbye. This brought to mind his unrequited love for Bruce, a young boy he had met when they were 15. A boy he thought of daily. David's story is never told to the gathering, but the reader gleans it from the stream of consciousness that flows through David's mind throughout the entire book.
Kay shares her story next, revealing a life history of her parents that centered around the remote Ghan Railway line in the outback of Australia where they manned a train stop. Poignant in its simplicity and tragedy, it no doubt fashioned the warm heart of Kay the listener, as she reacted to the stories of Andrew and Hugh.
Hugh's story is very different, and with the others, a train had much to do with the start of it. By a careless mistake, a year or so earlier he had left a train at the wrong station in a remote area. Noticing that he had a couple hours before the next train came through, he was easily drawn into conversation and dinner with a girl at the station who had been waiting to meet someone who did not show. Jenny became the love of his life quickly, and they were in Paris vacationing when she runs into Johnny Bates, someone she knew. This story is perhaps the most interestingly done as this meeting implants a sense of foreboding in Hugh that materializes and grows after Bates warns him that Jenny is not who he thinks she is.
Many forms of love are covered in this short novel, and the author does a splendid job of making the train a focal point of all the stories. All of this is done without a lot of detail, which works the even greater magic of letting the reader himself provide the extras. A short but very enjoyable and compelling read.