The Road to Urbino, By Roma Tearne

Sri Lanka and Tuscany meet in a finely-crafted novel of art, memory and migration.

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The Independent Culture

The Road to Urbino, artist and novelist Roma Tearne's fifth novel, is the elegantly complicated story of three men and the women who connect them.

Lynton Rasanagium (Ras) is a 50-year-old lonely Sri Lankan attendant at the National Gallery; Charles Boyar a famous art historian who first introduces Ras to the paintings of Piero della Francesca with ominous consequences; and egotistical Alex Benson a perpetually dissatisfied writer who has "the look of a marvellous derelict".

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These men are bound together by the women they love: the gracious Delia, "like a ripe yellow Russian plum", the object of Charles's love and Alex's erotic obsession; and Ras's petulant daughter Lola, the light of her father's life. She's as "totally indulged" as her near-namesake Lolita, and just as dangerous to the men around her.

Although the story begins with Ras in prison awaiting trial for the theft of one of Piero's paintings, the events that led up to this moment are the subject of Tearne's narrative. "Every act has a past. Events don't materialize from nowhere," she reminds us. In an attempt to understand her client's motivations, Ras's lawyer sets about piecing together his past: a childhood in war-torn Sri Lanka, relocation to Britain, his failed marriage and subsequent relationship with his daughter, and the road to Urbino in Tuscany, and the gallery on whose walls the Piero hung.

The story of Ras's life is of a man for whom "everything in the world would connect" to the trauma of his childhood: "Sorrow dogged his footsteps and shadowed his vision". Here Tearne draws on her own experience as a displaced Sri Lankan, and her politicised comment is subtly achieved by reading the Piero painting, "The Flagellation", which features three figures in the foreground apparently oblivious to the suffering of Christ, as a larger metaphorical device. But as Ras's life intersects with that of Charles and Alex, we learn that they too have suffered tragedies, all acutely rendered in Tearne's delicate but unforgiving prose.

Tearne has been described as bringing a painter's eye to the canvas of her pages. But this doesn't mean she shies away from that which is ugly. She writes about beauty and horror with the same precision and attention to detail, as well as possessing the rare knack of making the necessary characters believably unlikeable while still engrossing subjects.