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In Love and War by Alex Preston

Fri 3rd Jul 15

Alex Preston plays cricket for the Authors XI, alongside Sebastian Faulks, and it is tempting to imagine the two writers batting together, pausing between overs to chat about plot, character and the nuances of language. I’ve no idea whether Preston has the same cavalier attitude to batting shown by his team-mate, but much in his writing owes a debt to Faulks, and I mean this as a compliment. Like Birdsong and Charlotte Gray this is a period piece, but instead of France the setting is Italy, specifically Florence, before and during the Second World War, as we follow the fortunes of Esmond Lowndes, son of a high-ranking British Fascist, sent to set up a radio broadcasting company for his Italian counterparts.

To have a fascist as hero might seem daring, but once Esmond reaches his destination it becomes clear that his mind is concerned less with promoting the glories of Il Duce and more with perusing the galleries and bookshops of Florence. When his host at the British Institute presents him with a Baedeker and a copy of A Room With a View, it seems that his hopes will be realised, but his early encounters with Mussolini’s hard-liners cause him to rethink things somewhat. The friendships he makes bring home to him the complexities of life in Italy under Mussolini; there is much more to it than punctual trains and a celebration of nationhood.

When he arrives in Florence, Esmond is still pining for his lover, Philip, who has left Cambridge and is heading for Spain to fight; separated from Philip, he finds new romance, with Fiamma and with Gerald, but his true love affair is the one which develops with Ada, an Italian Jew whose predicament eventually convinces him to join the Resistance.

The middle section of the book is presented intriguingly as transcripts of a series of recordings made for the wireless; on one side of each disc is a worthy broadcast on an improving subject such as “Milton in Italy, 1638-1639,” while the other contains Esmond’s secret journal, full of longing for Ada and confusion at the divisions which he encounters in Florence. There are letters and telegrams linking him to his family in England, and each section is accompanied by a line drawing by Neil Gower, who also provides the wonderful map of 1937 Florence which decorates the endpapers.

The language is poetic; one of my favourite sequences occurs early in the book as Esmond embarks on his flight to Florence. “Sunlight slants into the cabin, thickened by his smoke. A buffeting gust and the plane gives a lurch, and he feels the delicious precariousness beneath him, and he realises that he hasn’t thought of Philip, or Cambridge, for an hour or more.” All the excitement of youth, of travel and flight is there, along with the revelation that his longing for Philip might well be as temporary as the weightlessness he feels during the flight.

In Love and War is beautifully written and it explores the troubles and contradictions of Fascist Italy through the lives of its characters. There is even a cricket match, taking place in the unlikely setting of the Spanish Civil War. It may be more Charlotte Gray than Birdsong but, on this evidence, Alex Preston could prove to be the heir to Faulks or William Boyd once he has played himself in .

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