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La's Orchestra Saves the World, By Alexander McCall Smith

A subdued McCall Smith hits a totally different note

Among his many talents, Alexander McCall Smith plays the contra-bassoon in the Really Terrible Orchestra, which he helped to found in Edinburgh. From the title of his new novel, the reader might expect a light-hearted romp about the formation of a scratch orchestra in the Second World War. What we get is a rather melancholy and subdued account of La (short for Lavender) Ferguson's life.

Her mother dies when La is 15; her father hardly occupies a page. When La goes up to Girton in 1929 she meets a tall, good-looking student. They marry a couple of years later and move to London. La finds that she cannot have children; her husband is most understanding, and after two years of marriage decamps to France with his mistress. He dies a few years later in Bordeaux just before the outbreak of war. This is all told rather perfunctorily, with a few too many sentences of novelist's building-brick.

The book opens out when La is living alone in a house in rural Suffolk, given to her by Richard's parents. She joins the Women's Land Army and is assigned to work for a miserly, arthritic farmer, Henry Madder. The farm is near an RAF base and she is visited by an officer, Tim Honey, a friend of a friend. He is an amateur trumpet player, and La, who plays the flute, has a vision of forming an orchestra to raise morale.

The orchestra, with the village postman on cello, occupies a disappointingly small place in the novel. The major theme of the second half is La's relationship with Feliks Dabrowski, a half-blinded Polish flyer who comes to work on Madder's farm. La realises she is falling in love with him but is tormented by suspicions that he could be a German. She confides in Honey; Feliks is interrogated and cleared. What she comes to see as her personal betrayal is echoed by an account of the general betrayal of the Polish nation by the British government. La's story continues until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the orchestra gives a final Peace Concert and La meets Feliks again.

This book is unlike anything else in McCall Smith's work. It is at times beautifully precise and psychologically acute, at others hurried or in pursuit of rather meaningless sub-plots. Its emotional depths may disconcert some of his huge fan base, but also give them unexpected pleasure.