Music Saves Souls

La'sOrchestraAlexander McCall Smith’s story “La’s Orchestra Saves the World” is a departure from his usual much-enjoyed series, but still maintains elements of his quiet observations of life in the mouths of his unique and lovable characters.  This story, told from the viewpoint of a young widow during World War II, examines the human condition in the English countryside, as young men go off to war and don’t return, rationing and food scarcities bring out the best or the worse in neighbors, and everyone is just struggling to find their balance in a country which has suddenly been threatened with extinction.  La, the main character, is an educated woman who has always felt marginalized in life, first by a husband who refused to let her hold a  job and then by the War Department, being given only small tasks to help with the war effort.  Her sense of being a “handmaiden” in life, of always watching from the sidelines and not being truly involved, is also played out in her relationship with a handsome Polish flyer, who is taken in by his English counterparts and given sanctuary during the war.  Despite La’s intense feelings for the man, she does nothing to act upon them and turns away from opportunities when presented.  La’s world in the Suffolk countryside tending the chickens and forever doing battle against the marauding fox is a small mirror of the greater world outside, fighting for its life against the threat from Germany.  The descriptions of the small town, the people becoming suspicious of one another in one instance, and going to great lengths to help in others, is a microcosm of the human condition at large.  A.M. Smith as always does a beautiful job in portraying the day-to-day minutia of life, capturing the divine in the smallest task.  The story’s strength is in the first two parts; in the third, at the very end, the author tends to get very preachy and it feels as if we have left La’s thoughts and are reading his directly.  His message in the end–a condemnation of the horror that would result from a nuclear war–is well taken, but feels ham-fisted, rushed, and forced in comparison with the the gentle, subtle prose of the fist part of the story.   orchestra

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Music Saves Souls

  1. Barb

    I agree with your comments about the end of the book! It was such a good read and then it turned into an essay. Up until the last few chapters, it was right up there with one of my favorites, The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society. It was still a good book, but could have been even better.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Barb, and you’re not the first person to compare this work to “Guernsey Literary Patato Peel Society” (which I also loved).

  3. Margaret

    I loved this book, too, and definitely felt the affinity to the Potato Peel story, both in setting and style. He couldn’t have picked a more perfect name for his lead character, Lavender or La. Between those, you get a breath of fresh air; the gentle, relaxing scent; and the hint of music. This is the sort of place you miss after you close the book for the last time. Alistair McCall Smith always makes me happy and reassured that while there are people like him and his characters around, the world will somehow muddle through and good will prevail, no matter what ugly things come along. He can come to my house for tea and a lecture any time, even in his kilt! (Caveat: This posting does not qualify as literary criticism because I am predisposed to love AMS and anything he writes, indiscriminately.)

  4. Margaret

    Argh, I mean ALEXANDER McCall Smith. Just read something else with an Alistair…

  5. Margaret, we will forgive you for calling Alexander Alistair, but he might not ! Thanks for the great comment–so agree with you; his books make you feel as though there is hope for a troubled world, without seeming overly saccharine or sentimental.

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