In these five long stories, McCall Smith (The Revolving Door of Life, 2016, etc.) imagines the worlds he has glimpsed in the black-and-white photographs he shares with the reader.
“Sister Flora’s First Day of Freedom” opens with the volume’s most compelling photograph: the back of a woman about to step out of a shaft of light, “at the point where an old life was consigned to the past and an entirely different life was being embarked upon.” Having inherited some money and quit her convent, Flora arrives in Edinburgh to find a husband. Her tart matter-of-factness keeps the mood of possibility and good fortune from turning cloying. “Angels in Italy” opens with an elderly Scottish woman in Italy showing a young man a photo of herself as a young girl leading a smaller girl on a pony beside an unhappy-looking boy on a bike. That boy grew up to become a famous painter, the subject of a magazine profile the young man is writing. The old woman tells the story of her complicated relationship with the artist, and the young man writes it down “exactly how it happened.” There are three people in the “Dear Ventriloquist” photo: a woman, the man sitting on her lap, and “the person behind the camera.” This portrait of a mild love triangle in a Canadian traveling circus is feather-light. So is “The Woman with the Beautiful Car.” The 1907 Standard Tourer belongs to the woman facing the camera, while two men change its tire. She is a young Irish heiress, one of the men the village teacher. Their meet-cute romance is a snapshot of man-made coincidence involving tacks. “He Wanted to Believe in Tenderness,” with its picture of a smiling soldier beside a woman whose expression is enigmatic, challenges McCall Smith’s generally sunny outlook. The story includes both a grim prisoner-of-war experience and three marital betrayals.
In all these stories, love and goodness ultimately win out, but the charming details and bittersweet human cost are what resonate.