ANDREW FFRENCH gets on track with our latest Book of the Month


ALEXANDER McCall Smith is best known for his series of novels, particularly The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, but every now and then he writes a story that booksellers find difficult to categorise.

Trains and Lovers: The Heart’s Journey is a nostalgic love story that takes place in London, Paris, New England, and the best-maintained railway siding in Australia.

The premise is a delightfully simple one – four strangers meet on a train and tell each other their life stories – but only an author as accomplished as McCall Smith could create such a satisfying outcome.

Andrew, David, Hugh and Kay find themselves sitting opposite one other on a train from Edinburgh to London and begin to open up to each other in a way that can sometimes happen on a long train journey.

The story appears to be set in the present day, but perhaps you have to suspend your disbelief a little and imagine that this conversation took place a couple of decades ago, when technology had not taken over train carriages.

Nowadays, most rail passengers are not so ready to embark on a conversation with a stranger, being too busy fiddling with their mobile phones, iPods, iPads or other technical appliances.

McCall Smith turns a blind eye to the texting generation and casts his mind back to the days when train carriages would be full of interesting conversations.

McCall Smith’s story explores the possibilities that stem from chance meetings, the possibilities of love and the pain of losing it.

As he declares in his opening chapter: “Love happens to just about everyone; it is like measles or 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. “Trains may hide one another, but they may also hide from us what they have in store — the meetings, the disclosures, the exchanged glances, the decisions we make or the insights that strike us on a journey.”

McCall Smith interweaves the stories of these four characters in 224 pages that absolutely fly by.

All four life stories are fascinating, but I particularly enjoyed the moment when Andrew, an intern at a London art gallery, spots a puff of steam in a painting which is supposed to date from the 17th century.

The tiny puff of white smoke indicates the presence of a steam train, giving the painting a later creation date.

Next time you go on a long train journey take this book with you as it could start a number of interesting conversations.

They might even be life-changing.


EDINBURGH-BASED Alexander McCall Smith is one of the world’s most prolific authors.

But he hasn’t always been a novelist, and has enjoyed a varied career.
For many years, he was a professor of medical law and has worked at universities in the UK and abroad.

His big break as a writer came with the publication of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which has gone on to sell more than 20 million copies.

He is now dedicated to writing fiction and his various series of fictional characters have now been translated into 40 languages and have become bestsellers around the world.

The series include the Scotland Street novels, first published as a series in The Scotsman newspaper, the Sunday Philosophy Club series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, the von Igelfeld series, and the London-based Corduroy Mansion novels.

Mr McCall Smith is also the author of collections of short stories, academic publications, and over 40 books for children.

He has received numerous awards for his novels, including the British Book Awards Author of the Year Award in 2004, and a CBE for services to literature in 2007.

He has honorary degrees from nine universities in Europe and North America and recently gave a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival. Mr McCall Smith is married to a doctor and has two daughters.

* Trains and Lovers: The Heart’s Journey is
published by Polygon, price £9.99. But you can get it for half price with the voucher in this week's Oxford Mail (April 4)