Poignancy of a love that’s not returned

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith
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Best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel considers the concept of unrequited love. He spoke to Yvette Huddleston.

As a literary subject love is endlessly fascinating. In its complexity and infinite variation, there is a wealth of material for the writer – and for the reader a whole host of possible scenarios with which to identify.

There is a particular kind of love that has long interested Alexander McCall Smith – best-selling author of the No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series – which he explores in his latest book The Forever Girl.

The novel, which he is launching next week at an event at the Town Hall in Hebden Bridge, hosted by the town’s independent Book Case Bookshop, is the moving story of a young woman, Clover, who falls in love with her childhood friend James at the age of six but never quite plucks up the courage to tell him how she feels. The story takes place over the course of several years and features some exotic locations including the Cayman Islands, London, Sydney and Singapore.

“Some of my recent books dealt with love and the role of love in our lives and I have always been interested in the idea of unrequited love or undeclared love,” says McCall Smith.

“When one person has been in love with another person for a long time without ever being in a position to be able to declare it, I find that quite poignant. So I thought I would write a novel about it and I developed this idea of a young woman who, from childhood has loved someone.

“I wondered what it must be like to be such a person and not know what the other person thinks or even whether that person returns their love.”

There have been a number of literary examples of unrequited love – think Beatrice and Dante, Yeats and Maud Gonne – and by its very nature it invokes a romantic image of selfless longing, noble suffering and admirable stoicism. Proust is said to have remarked that the only sustainable love was the unrequited kind.

However, the reality of a love that is undeclared or not reciprocated is often, quite simply, painful. “It is quite a thing to go through life like that,” says McCall Smith. “It’s a sad story and that’s really what I wanted to do with this book.” However, he adds reassuringly: “My books are generally happy and I think people can count on a happy ending.”

Like much of his work, The Forever Girl is, convincingly, written from a female perspective – presenting both Clover’s point of view and, to a lesser extent, that of her mother Amanda who at the beginning of the novel is going through a crisis in her marriage. “I enjoy writing in the voice of a woman,” he says. “I don’t really know why – people find it interesting. A lot of women authors write from a male point of view – maybe it is statistically rarer for male writers to write from a female point of view, but why shouldn’t a man do it?”

Since giving up his ‘day job’ as a highly respected professor of Medical Law, McCall Smith has devoted himself to writing full-time – and he is incredibly prolific. Apart from the hugely popular No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, for which he is probably most well known, he also writes other series including the 44 Scotland Street books, The Sunday Philosophy Club crime stories and the Pimlico-set Corduroy Mansions – as well as the occasional one-off novels. “I probably break all the rules of publishing doing four or five books a year,” he says. “I am very conscious of my great fortune in being able to write quite quickly. I write three thousand words a day, sometimes more, but I have to be quite disciplined about it. You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to seize you because nothing gets done that way.”

The Forever Girl, £16.99, is published by Polygon. Alexander McCall Smith will be appearing at The Town Hall, Hebden Bridge on February 3 at 7.30pm. 
Tickets £3.

A life in law and literature

Alexander McCall Smith was born in 1948 in what was then the British colony of Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). He studied at the University of Edinburgh where he gained a PhD in law and went on to teach at Queen’s University in Belfast. He returned to southern Africa to help co-found and teach law at the University of Botswana. For many years he was a professor of Medical Law but after the publication of his highly successful No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which has sold over 20 million copies, he turned to writing fiction full-time.

In 2007 he was awarded an MBE for his services to literature.