Alexander McCall Smith | La’s Orchestra Saves the World (Pantheon)

lasorchestrasavestheworld.jpgIt’s unlike any of McCall Smith’s previous books and yet is perfect in its own way.

304 pages. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. $23.95 (hardcover)

 

Alexander McCall Smith has already accomplished enough for three normal lifetimes: professor of law at the University of Botswana, internationally-recognized expert on biomedical ethics (he served on the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO, among others), best-selling author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and an amateur bassoonist in and co-founder of Edinburgh’s Really Terrible Orchestra.

I’m actually understating Mr. McCall Smith’s authorial achievements: he writes at least three other successful series of novels and has written textbooks, children’s stories and an opera libretto as well. But to get to the business at hand, his latest book, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, shows that the well hasn’t yet run dry. It’s unlike any of his previous books and yet is perfect in its own way.

The orchestra of the title is really a minor part of the story, although you could say it is a symbol of British spirit on the home front during World War II: ordinary people making the best with what they have, forging bonds with unexpected neighbors and keeping up morale by reminding themselves that there’s more to life than war and rationing and hardship. The beauty of the novel lies in the pleasure it takes in describing the minute details of life in the English countryside and the unhurried pace of the storytelling, which mimics the simpler life of the characters in the days when mass communication meant BBC radio broadcasts and ownership of an automobile was something rare rather than an expectation of every adult.

La is the nickname of Lavender Ferguson, a young widow who decides in 1939 to move from London to Suffolk to escape the German bombs and start a new life while leaving behind the pain of a failed marriage which ended long before her husband’s death. Her share of her husband’s wine business provides her with the means to live comfortably (a plot point McCall Smith never fails to address) and La offers her services in the Women’s Land Army to do farm work in place of the men serving in the military. She is assigned to work on a farm near an RAF base and comes to meet an officer from the base who is also an amateur musician. Together they decide to form an orchestra combining players from the village and the base.

One who joins the orchestra is Feliks Dabrowski, an airman of Polish descent assigned to farm work after partially losing his sight. Feelings develop between Feliks and La, described with marvelous understatement and great psychological depth by McCall-Smith. But La is troubled by indications that Feliks may be German rather than Polish—could the object of her affections be a spy? There are a few mysteries in the village as well—household intruders, money gone missing—but the focus of the novel is not so much on solving them as in the opportunity they offer to explore a way of life which may be more foreign to modern readers than village life in Botswana. The closest analogy I can think of is Agatha Christie’s cozy village mysteries, although the emphasis in La’s Orchestra is definitely on characters and scene-setting rather than solving mysteries. If you fancy a trip of a few hours to the English countryside of 60 years ago, in the company of people who give up their secrets only gradually and after long acquaintance, this is definitely a novel you should check out. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

 

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