By Alexander McCall Smith
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino
The trouble with Alexander McCall Smith being such a prolific author is it can be a challenge to keep up with him. And I confess my appetite for his No1 Ladies Detective Agency books has dulled (Precious Ramotswe’s antics have become rather samey I think) and I never entirely took to his other two series. But now here is his first standalone novel, a sweetly old-fashioned story that is bound to win hearts amongst his fans.
La – short for Lavender – is a young woman reeling from the sudden end of her marriage who moves to the Suffolk countryside to find a new life. England is on the brink of the Second World War and soon La is digging up her garden to plant vegetables and pitching in with the war effort. She hits on a plan to boost morale, bringing the villagers and men from the local airbase together to form an orchestra, and she meets flautist Feliks, a Polish airman. But La’s growing attraction to the refugee is tempered by wartime suspicion.
This is an easy, comfortable read and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. McCall Smith’s greatest strength is the spareness and simplicity of his storytelling and this book suits his approach. He has captured a lost era, a time when life was less complicated, with people pitching together against a common enemy and showing the best of the human spirit.
In a way La’s orchestra and her love of music are incidental to the plot. This is a story about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. It’s about Englishness and decency. All the characters – even La herself – seem understated and the tone is gentle although McCall Smith doesn’t ever shy away from the ugliness of war.
There are times when he seems to be directly addressing the reader: he writes of how small lives can seem bigger when you look at them close up, and of how simplicity and sincerity have been replaced by obfuscation and pretence.
Yes La’s Orchestra is a small story, simply told but it’s no less memorable or moving because of it. And somehow it’s reassuring that McCall Smith has managed to restrain himself from turning it into yet another endless series.
Nicky Pellegrino, in addition to being a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her latest The Italian Wedding was published two months ago), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on 26 July.