Just last week I finished Alexander McCall Smith’s newest novel, a compact little story with the intriguing title La’s Orchestra Saves the World. Unlike his other works I’ve enjoyed (reviewed here and here), this story is set not in Africa, but in World War II-era England. This is a setting I usually find irresistable, and it has stood me in good stead once again.
La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a story in which many things almost happen: La (short for Lavender) almost has a happy marriage; La almost has a love affair; La almost catches a German spy; La almost catches a thief. In between the almosts, however, are a lot of feelings: about love; about the war; about life in general, and how it should be conducted. The whole idea of the orchestra is almost a sub-point of the story, at least in my opinion. Yes, La does organize and conduct a war-time orchestra composed of a raggle-taggle group of musicians, but the real story is about La and a Polish man, Felicks, who was a part of the French airforce and shot down in England during the war. Felicks is proper and reserved, a real Continental gentleman. La, lonely and widowed after her marriage turned sour, feels a connection with him and even longs to begin a relationship. Meanwhile, she conducts her orchestra and does farm labor work as a part of the war effort.
It doesn’t sound like this book is about much, and really, it isn’t. However, it is full of rich description and interesting observations about war and love and forgiveness:
Her words were unheard. But she had bestowed her forgiveness upon him, and as she turned and left the room, she thought: you can be forgiven without knowing it, and for the forgiver it does not matter that the recipient is unaware of what has happened; just as one may be loved by another without ever knowing it. (104)
The story has a morally ambiguous ending (and even this is a generous appraisal), but I found it altogether a nice story. I think I prefer Mma Precious Ramotswe as a protagonist/heroine, but still, this wasn’t a bad way to spend a few hours.