There is much to admire in Alex Preston's third novel, In Love and War, the Florence-set tale of one young man's journey from lacklustre British Blackshirt to fervent Italian Resistance fighter.
Sent down from college having been caught in flagrante delicto with his male lover, Esmond Lowndes, "scion of the second family of the British Union", finds himself tasked with setting up Radio Firenze, a wireless station cementing Anglo-Italian relations between the Party and their continental counterparts.
His disgrace hushed up with the same ease with which his mother burns her son's unsuitable reading matter, his Djuna Barnes, Joyce and Forster – "She liked her novels like her evenings – light and mannered and smelling faintly of horses; his were fishy and, like Cambridge, to be struck from the record" – his parents are oblivious to the fact that the Florence that awaits Esmond is a living, breathing Forsterian idyll, complete with eccentric and glamorous expats, bohemian writers, and passionate love affairs, all played out against the backdrop of scorching heat and iced Negronis.
Taken aback by a stunning view from a window, Esmond is told that Florence is a city of such scorci: "A view you glimpse, all of a sudden, that leaps inside you." Preston's narrative offers something comparable. Split into four parts, the first is a richly evocative portrait of the dying days of a particular way of life – the final hurrah of the English in Florence, perhaps not quite the last days of Rome, but there's a not dissimilar sense of heady excess in the air – and the last part, an equally powerful study of the dulled and dampened city at war. Although Sir Lowndes (who, as the conflict looms into view, loses sympathy with Mosely) can't convince his son to bear arms for the country he's left behind, Esmond is more than prepared to fight for the city, and the woman, he's grown to love.
War is a "group experience", a British intelligence officer working with the Italian Resistance tells his countryman. Esmond, however, disagrees; it's still about the individual lives of those involved, he argues: "A million such stories stacked on top of each other, entwining, competing." And aptly it's in these two sections, although narrated in the third person, that Esmond's story is rendered at its sharpest, infused with immediacy – the sections in between (one a collection of letters, followed by something akin to a diary in the form of lonely recordings Esmond makes in his studio after hours, both written in the first person) are decidedly less vivid – and ultimately, his self-sacrificing resistance is elevated to a broader act of atonement for the evil men like his father have bred.