Book World: Review of 'La's Orchestra Saves the World'

ON KEY: Alexander McCall Smith's heroine finds power in a baton.
ON KEY: Alexander McCall Smith's heroine finds power in a baton. (Susan Biddle/the Washington Post)
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By Eugenia Zukerman
Wednesday, December 9, 2009


By Alexander

McCall Smith


294 pp. $23.95

According to George Bernard Shaw, "Hell is full of musical amateurs," but Alexander McCall Smith's new book defies that assessment. One of the most popular writers of our time, McCall Smith has seen his books translated into dozens of languages. His work as a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and as a participant on international bioethics committees may have informed his popular "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, but perhaps it was his amateur bassoon playing that inspired this new work. Not content with merely founding the Really Terrible Orchestra in Edinburgh (which brings really great fun to its audiences), McCall Smith has established an opera house and opera training center in Botswana. Clearly, his love of music has been translated into action and now into a stand-alone novel called "La's Orchestra Saves the World."

Set in England at the onset of World War II, McCall Smith's new tale is a metaphor for the transformative power of music. The story centers on a woman named Lavender, La for short. When we meet her, she appears to be intelligent but naive, all duty and no daring. At Cambridge she "joined a music society, and played the flute in a quartet" and also received from her tutor some heavy-handed feminist lessons, such as, "All these intelligent girls come to us and then leave, more or less promised to some man. And they go off and marry him and that's the end. What a waste. What a criminal waste." Although La vows that she has come to school "to be taught how to think," she marries her first ardent suitor, who ends up betraying her, leaving her and dying just as war breaks out.

In a show of real pluck and purpose, La goes off to live alone in an inherited country cottage in Suffolk, where she grows vegetables in her garden and helps an arthritic neighbor with his farm. McCall Smith captures England's wartime atmosphere of terror, courage and defiance, and his heroine discovers how music can be an antidote to the horrors of battle. "Music was her refuge," McCall Smith writes. "There was madness abroad, an insanity of killing and cruelty that defied understanding. . . . La thought that music disproved this. Reason, beauty, harmony: these were ultimately more real and powerful than any of the demons unleashed by dictators."

La has a chance to test this idea when an air force officer named Tim Honey sees her flute on the kitchen dresser. Once an "indifferent trumpet player," Tim suggests that there are "chaps at the base who would love to play in a band." And so La's orchestra begins, with our heroine as conductor.

The musicians give a rousing victory concert in 1945, but it is during the Cuban missile crisis, when La decides to "hold a concert for peace," that McCall Smith drives his point home. In truth, La wants the concert because "she believed in the power of music." She chose "Bach for order; Mozart for healing. This was the antithesis of the anger and fear that could unleash the missiles; this was music showing the face of love, and forgiveness."

"La's Orchestra Saves the World" is crafted with the author's usual wit, wisdom and grace. Like a pianist putting listeners at ease with the opening phrase, McCall Smith immediately makes us feel confident that this is a true and resonant tale.

Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books and the artistic director of the Vail Valley Music Festival.

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