Book Review : "Trains and Lovers," by Alexander McCall Smith

Invisible threads are the strongest ties
- Friederich Nietzsche

Trains, or more precisely, train journeys, have a unique place in the varied world of modes of transport. A plane ride is mostly an impersonal safari of the world from 35,000 feet; driving a car on a highway is hardly as relaxing as most stories make it out to be; any other personal mode of transport is impractical for longer journeys; but trains, they are just the right balance of speed and relaxation that allows us to soak in the pictures moving past us without worrying about how we reach the destination. Anyone who has ever had a train ride will never forget the experience - the gentle humming of the engine, the rhythmic rocking of the coaches to the music on the rails, the countless hours spent sitting on the doorstep watching some faraway location on the horizon that appears to be immutable to our motion, or simply, the exhilaration as the train approaches a station. The sights, the sounds, the smells of a train journey are as unique as they are universal in their effect.

Alexander McCall Smith's novel "Trains and Lovers," takes place within one such journey. Four strangers from different parts of the world (America, Australia, Scotland, and England) find themselves sharing a compartment on a train, from Edinburgh (Scotland) to London (England). After a brief period of silence, someone makes a half-hearted attempt at small talk to while away the time on the five-hour journey. What starts as a light conversation about a fishing boat quickly veers into deeply personal and philosophical space. The bulk of the novel is about this personal conversation and the experiences contained within it. 

The stories are woven together in a way that follows the overall tone of the journey, and the author takes care to not turn the four protagonists into familiar stereotypes. The stories, on the other hand, are more of a philosophical vehicle for the author's personal views about love, relationships, and the people who inhabit them. Every story is connected to trains, whether physically or by mere representation. They are written in a very simple but affecting style. In the hands of a lesser writer, the stories could have easily turned into a train of platitudes, but Smith avoids this trap most deftly by keeping the narrative grounded to a certain degree. The flow of the narrative is very conversational, and quite engaging. The stories, and the main thread, are about relationships between people, and they also include the background relationships that drive the individuals -- the corporate environment, the harsh landscape of barren outback, the isolated coastal community that is a summer refuge, or the treacherous landscape of paranoia. The stories are not primarily about dramatic, life-changing events, than they are about lives that changed other lives over a course of a lifetime. The actions of the individuals do matter, but it is the effect these actions have on their surroundings that the novel seeks to explore. Smith's novel is ultimately about people, and the lives that they choose to inhabit. Through the actions of the protagonists, he seems to suggest that whether bitter or sweet, or both, the effects of our actions last for a longer time than we may choose to believe - like the lingering scent that stays on the stage long after the performers have done their acts!

"Trains and Lovers" is suitable for a light summer reading, but the lightness of approach masks some touching insights into our humanity. Highly recommended!