When the Sunday Times offered the bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith – of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame – access to their early 20th Century photograph archive, the writer delightfully viewed this as an opportunity to come up with a collection of short stories. The outcome of this venture is “Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind.” Based on random pictures selected from the Times archive as alluded to above, Mr. Smith conjures up fifteen short stories that are refreshing, romantic and crisp.
The collection begins with the story titled “Pianos and Flowers.” The picture on which this story is based has a couple purposefully striding past a stout topiary. Behind them is a group of individuals comprising of three women and a man who seem to be attentively scrutinizing the couple. Mr. Smith takes his readers on a nostalgic past that traverses across the lush bio diversity of the Malaysian, (or rather Malayan, since this story is set in the times of the British Raj and the Second World War) island of Penang and occupied Singapore before coming to an end in Britain. The lives of Annette, Flora, Stephanie and their solitary male sibling Thomas Sanderson revolves around viewing life from the spectrum of both tranquility and tension. Tragedy seamlessly intermingles with a sense of contentment and the ups and downs experienced by the family of a British Civil Servant, is captured with a poignance that is seamless.
“Maternal Designs” deals with the zealous, nay, overzealous optimism of the mother of a budding architect, which although induces a chuckle in the reader initially, leads her towards hear pulling frustration. A surge of sympathy swells in the heart of the reader for Richard, the patient architect.
Margaret, an enterprising and hard-working Scot gets a job as a secretary in London and this relocation brings her into unexpected contact with a young man of welcome looks and appreciable manners. He also harbours an irresistible inclination towards sculptures of the Sphinx. However, when he misplaces his notebook containing her address, the lady is distraught after not hearing from him. Losing all hopes of re-establishing contact, she attends a dance and meets a courteous bachelor named Alfred. Just when Alfred proposes to Margaret, she finds an advertisement in the newspaper regarding an exhibition revolving around the legend of the Sphinx…
“Pogo Sticks and Man with Bicycle”, has the pioneers of the DNA, Francis Crick and James Watson mesmerized by the contraption that is the Pogo stick. Unraveling the spring mechanism of the Pogo sticks results in the earth-shattering discovery of the Double Helix. This is one of my personal favourites in the book. The revelation at the end of the story hits the reader like a ton of bricks
“St John’s Wort” has a perennially worried husband managing whom is a real concern for his spouse. The worries ranging from the perplexing to the imagined reach their zenith when John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev eyeball each other over the Cuban Missile crisis. As an obstinate and overconfident Fidel Castro exacerbates the worry of the man of the house, his wife finds a friendly neighbor might just have the solution (no pun intended) that has the potential for permanently resolving issues.
Through fifteen sepia images that randomly depict a myriad set of emotions, Mr. Smith peels back layer after layer of imagined fantasies. Employing a breadth that is exemplary and a spontaneity that cannot be practiced, Mr. Smith provides unfettered delight to his readers with plots that are as ingenious as they are innovative. The one word that instantly comes to mind upon a reading of this beautiful bouquet of stories, is wistful. Many of the stories make the reader wonder ‘what could have been’ instead of what is.
“Zeugma” lays bare the uncongealed hurt contained within the heart of an accomplished and well-regarded grammarian Professor Mactaggart, who tries gamely to mask the pain within by taking refuge in metaphors and sanctuary in the intricacies of English language. When cycling on his way to the library he meets the attractive librarian, Ms. Thwaites, he experiences a sense of belonging. Is this the redemption the Professor has been looking for all along?
To paraphrase Robert Frank, “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” Mr. Smith embraces this philosophy to the hilt by suffusing humanity in fifteen random photographs. Hs effortless writing combined with a vintage spontaneity births a precious connection between the unknown and unnamed characters in the photograph and the reader. By the time the reader is done with the book, Richard, Margaret, Alfred, Mactaggart and the rest are transformed into friends, foes, heroes, villains, the wrongful and the wronged, the punished and the acquitted, the sufferer and the perpetrator. To produce this kind of an emotion from pictures warrants a degree of talent that is out of the ordinary – which is exactly what Mr. Alexander McCall Smith does.
(“Pianos and Flowers” is published by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York and will be published on the 19th of January 2021.)