“…The strutting demagogue, with his insane shouting, had fixed his eyes on them, and he was coming…”
This line, in chapter eleven of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, terrified me. Why? Who was this demagogue with his eyes set on the innocents of country England during the second world war? Hitler, of course. And in a single sentence, McCall Smith managed to convey to me the terror felt by millions all over the world during the horrific reign of this mass murdering tyrant.
But this beautiful and poignant novel is not fixated on the horrors of war. Although certainly pegged as its central theme, the book instead focuses on the everyday lives of those who took what they could, whether it be their time, skills, labour – even their lives – and handed it selflessly into the fray of WWII. These were people committed to creating a façade of peace and stability that could only be flimsily constructed around the psychological dread impinging on all those in the firing line of war.
McCall Smith’s book centres of its main character – La (short for Lavender), a young woman who marries early, only to have her husband Richard up and leave her for a French woman. Devastated, La moves to her inlaw’s house in the Suffolk countryside where she experiences a lonesome life, peppered with characters meandering around the devastation unfolding in Europe, from farmers to soldiers to displaced nationals in need of a place to wait out the war.
One such character is the mysterious Feliks, a Polish gentleman who is forced to work as a farmhand for money – a character who unexpectedly touches La’s heart.
Encouraged by Tim, a military officer and friend of La’s cousin, La gathers up her love of music and slowly builds a small orchestra in the small town of Bury – an orchestral group consisting of locals and military men from a nearby base. The orchestra meets monthly and is a welcome and pleasurable respite to the fear-drenched and meager lives lived by the local people of Suffolk. With music on their minds, these everyday people show the enemy they will continue on, regardless of the havoc being waged on the lives of their countrymen.
The orchestra also brings La and Feliks closer together, but when suspicions arise as to the real identity of Feliks, La has to make a difficult decision between loyalty to her new friend and her homeland – a decision that shapes her destiny and the first fifty years of her life.
La’s Orchestra Saves the World has a title that perhaps promises a storyline with impressive and far-reaching impact on the world during World War II. McCall Smith’s subsequent tales doesn’t disappoint, but perhaps not in a way you would expect.
This delicately written novel is poignant in that it focuses on the small, everyday moments that shaped the ultimate success of the allied forces in 1945. It focuses on the relationships, the helplessness, the desire to make a difference during a time when so little could be done to help minimize the dreadful loss of life – “…innocents who had been tossed so heartlessly into veils of gunfire…”
From the characters to the plotline and the very prose with which is it written, La’s Orchestra Saves the World is a book that will sweep you up in its pages and deposit you firmly in a time past. The dichotomy in the writing style is very present – at once delicate then impactful and strong. One moment suspenseful, then suddenly as heartwarming as an open field of daisies.
La will enchant and intrigue you. You will barrack for her and you will pine over her decisions. And most of all, you will want more for her.
A gentle theme running through this book is that life is not about fairness. It is random, confusing, sometimes cruel and often unjust. The final pages of this book made me cry – not just a few rolling tears – but openly weeping. Not many books manage to do that to me – and it was truly wonderful to feel so much for La and this small slice of her world.
Can an orchestra really save the world? Yes, I think it can.