The Road to Urbino, By Roma Tearne

Art, isolation, and other obsessions

Anna Stopes
Saturday 04 August 2012 19:56
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All roads lead to Urbino in Roma Tearne's latest novel, where themes of love, grief and memory are played out, before a dramatic and impulsive act of art theft. The plot twists from a lush Sri Lanka to an Italy suffused with light, and finally a British jail, from where Lynton "Ras" Rasanagium tells his poignant tale in interviews with his barrister, Elizabeth Saunders.

As in Tearne's earlier writings, the reverberations of war are strongly felt in this novel. Families are destroyed, and characters are sent down different, often conflicting paths. Thus Ras arrives in London from Sri Lanka as a young adult, troubled by his mother's death, his father's disappearance and his own imprisonment in a detention camp. His haunted state alienates his English wife and eventually estranges him from his daughter Lola.

Ras seeks solace in art, particularly the frescoes of Piero della Francesca. As a child, he stole paints in order to daub his own fresco on a ruined church wall, and as he drifts through London after the break up of his marriage he becomes a gallery attendant at the National Gallery. He comes to contrast the "sacred history" of Western art with the desperation of life in troubled Sri Lanka, and tells Elizabeth: "I stole a bit of Western History."

At the National Gallery, Ras encounters the urbane Alex Benson and the gentle Charles Boyar, an art curator who becomes a friend. Elizabeth interviews Alex as a witness, and his infatuation with Charles's wife Delia is revealed. It is his narrative that tells of the devastating bomb that brings an end to Charles and Delia's charmed lives, and heralds the re-appearance of the ambitious, calculating Lola.

Obsession underlies the novel: obsessive love, yearning and anger. Through Delia's obsession with her grandfather, a Nazi officer, Tearne brings a sense of global war's destruction to her pages. This element is less convincing, but the characters' obsessions do work successfully to isolate them from each other, even in grief.

Tearne's training as a painter shows in the subtle descriptions that fill each page with lyrical power, and the beautiful detail that provides a respite from the emotional desolation each character struggles with. This could be devastating, but in Tearne's skilled and sensitive hands the effect is softened, almost redemptive, making the novel a satisfying read.

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