Saturday, January 16, 2021

Review: Pianos and Flowers

Title: Pianos and Flowers
Author: Alexander McCall Smith

Publisher: 19th January 2021 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Pages: 192 pages

How I Read It: ARC book

Genre: short stories, historical fiction

My Rating: 3 cups


A delightful compendium of short stories inspired by images in the renowned photographic archive of The Sunday Times.

A picture can paint a thousand words, but what about a vintage photograph?

In 2015 Alexander McCall Smith wrote a book entitled Chance Developments: Unexpected Love Stories, in which he imagined the stories behind five chanced-upon black and white photographs. Who were those people, why were they smiling, what made them sad? He so enjoyed the experience that when The Sunday Times generously offered him access to their early 20th century photograph archive he jumped at the opportunity.

My Thoughts

‘A lot of people don’t notice the interesting things around them. They go through life thinking everything is very dull, and all the time it’s the opposite.’

I am a huge fan of the author, Alexander McCall Smith. He is a prolific and incredible writer with his No.1. Ladies Detective Agency being a firm favourite of mine. Therefore, I was intrigued to learn about his latest short story collection. Previously, Alexander had written for the Sunday Times when he was asked to take photos from their archive and imagine the lives behind some of the everyday people captured. He did not know who the people were or the context behind the photograph. It is something I am sure we are all guilty of, looking at old photos and wondering about the lives of the various people we gaze upon. Here, Alexander uses his incredible imagination, takes tiny visual clues and creates a fictional story based on that. 

‘When we look in retrospect at the saliences of our lives, we realise, sometimes with astonishment, that this is how they are shaped: a single event; a chance word of advice; an apparently minor decision by another - any of these may dictate what happens to us and what we ourselves do.’

The stories vary but overall it is the pearls of wisdom I seek in Alexander’s writing. The detail and precision is incredulous with some of the stories being as profound as I expected. He has such a readable style and easily brings to life fictional dreams and desires from these still images. Alexander takes you for a brief interlude, a small snapshot, into what may have led the people to be at that place and time for the photograph to be taken. It makes for light and entertaining reading. 

Whilst I enjoyed the concept for this book, I have to admit that I am not a fan of the short story. It probably worked as a newspaper feature and would provide a good ‘inbetween’ read as a book. However, I did not find myself fully engaged and that may be due to the narrative structure rather than the narrative voice. Alexander has a true gift for writing and to take such a simple stimulus and weave stories around it testifies to that. 

‘Some lives are like that - they leave little trace, as unrecorded as were those countless lives led before writing and photography gave some degree of permanence to our human experience.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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