It is 1937 in Florence, Italy. The world, barely recovered from the last great war, is bracing for another. 20 year old Esmond Lowndes has been plucked out of his Cambridge college and packed off to Italy in disgrace after being caught in bed with another man. His father, a senior member of the British Union of Fascists, has found him a job establishing a fascist radio station in Italy intended to repair Anglo-Italian relations by broadcasting fascist propaganda alongside culturally improving discussions to the English community. If the idea is to keep Esmond’s mind off “questionable behaviour”, it doesn’t work. It takes almost no time for Esmond to tumble into bed with his maid's daughter and her sometime boyfriend, Gerald.
As he traipses through Florence, making friends, in love with love, and with the arts and cultures of the city, the intellectually inclined (if not entirely original) Esmond, who has obediently observed his father's politics, but not perhaps his convictions, finds his own beliefs tested. While life for the expats up to that time is still sheltered and privileged, clashes with the Blackshirts (members of the fascist “voluntary police”), with flashes of brutality, coupled with rising tensions, make the younger Lowndes begin to question his loyaties.
Alex Preston's third novel is a character study, set against the backdrop of war, which follows Esmond's journey from a young dreamer into a seasoned resistant fighter. The author employs several different devices to tell the story: a third person narrator that sticks close to Esmond's point of view, a collection of letters, telegrams and cards from friends and family, to move the story along and bring the war into the picture, and a collection of recordings made by Esmond himself, which act as a sort of audio diary. Preston also uses the novel-within-a-novel framework, where Esmond himself is writing a novel called In Love and War, which is rejected by Faber and Faber (Preston's publishers).
While whether these many devices work to the novel's credit, or detract from it is debatable, what we do get is a moving portrait of lost innocence, and a flawed, but ultimately likeable protagonist. The horrors of the war, while viewed from a distance, through the lens of the character's experiences, strike home on an emotional level. While Esmond Lowndes may not have had much luck with his novel, Alex Preston's In Love and War is definitely worth a read.
Alex Preston is an award-winning novelist and journalist who appears regularly on BBC television and radio. He writes for GQ, Harper's Bazaar and Town & Country Magazine as well as for the Observer's New Review. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Kent. His next book, about birds in literature, will be published by Little, Brown in May 2017. Visit the Dhaka Lit Fest between November 17-19 for a chance to meet the man in action.