By Victoria Best
It is 1937 and disgraced Cambridge student, Esmond Lowndes – caught in bed with another boy by the Master of Emmanuel College, no less – is being sent to Florence to redeem himself. In a wonderfully vivid opening section, he climbs into a biplane at Croydon Aerodrome and is whisked into the sky. ‘He looks down at his family – four faces turned towards him – and feels knots of love and duty stretch and give.’ In his hand he holds a pencil portrait of himself, pressed there by severely asthmatic sister Anna (‘She has drawn him a man – given him something to grow into’), whilst beside him sits a copy of The Wireless Operator’s Handbook. He is being sent to Italy by his British Union activist father to set up a radio station that will combine Fascist broadcasts with improving programs about literature and the arts. He goes with the blessing of Oswald Mosley.
In no time they are approaching the coast: ‘a cricket ground, dunes, a gaudy litter of bathing huts, strung out in pink, yellow and turquoise along the promenade. The Channel turns in shelves from teal to the deepest blue, and he realises England has gone.’ They reach Italy – ‘rolling farmland, lakes like spilt mercury, red-roofed towns – and then hit bad weather over Florence, forced to land through a storm: ‘a blast of rubber and Esmond’s box of books launches into the air and bursts against the cabin roof. He is beaned by a copy of Hamsun’s Hunger.’ The journey contains the symbolic seeds of all that comes next: ambition, love, beauty and turbulence.
When he arrives, Florence slumbers gently in its own gorgeousness and the British presence in the city appears comfortably entrenched, if somewhat out of date. His boss, Harold Goad, Director of the British Institute, is an ailing academic, a mess of scurfy skin, fragile digestion and fatigue, held together by his stiff upper lip. But he is also kindliness personified, a man willing to think the best of everyone. Plans for the radio station enter a limbo while Esmond embarks on the first, joyous part of his sentimental education, entering enthusiastically into an erotic threesome with Goad’s handsome son and the Italian daughter of his landlady. The setting is very E. M. Forster as the three frolic in glorious nature, and find themselves drawn into the web of ex-pat novelist Norman Douglas, a louche old reprobate. It is thanks to Douglas and his selfish, dangerous desires that the scene darkens, and in a swift turn of fortune, Esmond finds himself up against horror, tragedy and the ugly machinations of the head of the secret police, Mario Carità.
As war beckons and the English flee the city, Esmond digs in deep, committing himself to the radio station. He becomes the still point of the novel while events swirl around him – troubling news from home, as well as the worsening mood in Florence. The narrative is split into five sections, one of which develops the plot by means of correspondence as Esmond fields the various demands from his family, his ex-lover Philip, fighting in Spain, and various contributors to the radio station, including Esra Pound. The next becomes a secret history Esmond records on the underside of Faschist broadcasts, as his growing love for a young Jewish woman fighting in the Resistance provokes his move into independent manhood, no longer a mouthpiece for his father’s political views or a willing puppet in the sexual games of others. But as war grips the city and the Nazis are prepared to use any means available to stave off the advance of the Allies, will Esmond find the courage and the conviction necessary to do the right thing?
The writing of the novel is wonderful in its tone which creates a perfect sense of time and place, and there is an audacious blend of fact and fiction at work. Characters like Oswald and Diana Mosley, Alice Keppel and Norman Douglas provide landmarks of authenticity in the story and give that little frisson of the past made flesh. One of the great pleasures of historical fiction is learning a great deal more about significant eras from an individual perspective. I realised reading this novel that I knew very little about Italy’s experience of the Second World War, a situation now happily remedied to some small extent. One of the great strengths of this novel is to leave the reader feeling dip-dyed in the past, so rich and vivid is the sensory experience.
This isn’t a flawless novel. The five part structure and the switch into the fragmented narratives provided by the correspondence and the recordings risks slowing the pace and immediacy of the storytelling. For my own part, I loved these innovative sections and found the book died on me a little just when it should have been most gripping, in the final section where the action climaxes. Esmond and his love, Ada, spend a long time hiding in Alice Keppel’s villa on the outskirts of Florence, and I lost my momentum with them. But this is a beautiful novel of terrible times, beautifully written, beautifully conceived, fearless in its engagement with war as well as love. An absolute must for fans of historical fiction and anyone with an interest in the Second World War.
Alex Preston, In Love and War, (Faber & Faber, July 2014) 978-0571279456, 352 pages, hardback.
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