BOOK REVIEW / Puns and lovers: 'The Young Italians' - Amanda Prantera: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

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THIS is a sweet-sour story about an 'incurably sad affair', says Amanda Prantera. There's an echo in these words of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier ('the saddest story I have ever heard'). Half in the footsteps of Ford, Prantera has written an ironic account of a relationship between four people which unfolds in Italy at the outbreak of the Second World War. This is her sixth novel, and it has impish wit; Prantera likes to reveal the black and merciless things that lie behind the facade of polite society.

We begin in 1928 when Irene arrives in Florence to visit her stuffy, exiled English aunt, who lives, in the shadow of Fascist violence, in calculatedly eccentric fashion - peacock feathers, daft tea parties. The sad affair develops when Irene meets a handsome but rather twittish Italian called Tommaso. She swiftly marries him, much to the distress of Aunt Frances, who cautions: 'If you marry an Italian you do not marry a man but a family.'

Amanda Prantera, born in England but married to an Italian, clearly understands wedlock in a country where divorce was introduced only in 1970. One can trust The Young Italians for its amused picture of the vast, tribal kinships that form the vertebrae of Italian society. Irene's sister-in-law, Sylvia, is a strange creature who envies Tommaso his fortuitous marriage to this alluring English girl. But Irene likes Sylvia; in fact, she half loves her.

Any lesbian affair would be frowned upon at a time when Mussolini was pinning special fecundity medals to the bosoms of pregnant mothers. This particular one grievously upsets Irene's family, although its members pretend not to notice. At this point a fourth person enters the amorous equation, the mysterious Giuliano. He pounces lynx-like on Irene, and then bamboozles her with the promise of eternal love and so forth.

There's a pleasing symmetry to The Young Italians: Giuliano dies and Irene's marriage to the doltish Tommaso turns out to be a less sad affair. Prantera's research into the rise of Fascism has been diligent, and episodes from prewar Italy - the invasion of Ethiopia, Hitler's visit to Rome - are woven into a plot which might otherwise appear a bit flat. Less impressive are the lame puns ('They were saddled with one another, and the saddles fitted and they wore them . . .') But these are hiccups in a book which generally entertains.