Alex Preston’s third novel In Love and War is impressive. Its the factional story of Esmond Lowndes’ stay in Florence from 1937 to 1945. He is the son of British Union of Fascist leader Sir Lionel Lowndes and, after being sent down from Cambridge after a sex scandal, he goes to Florence in 1937 to set up a Anglo radio station sympathetic to Mussolini. However after his lover dies in the Spanish Civil War and he takes up with a Florentine Jew Ada he moves to the local Partisans and by the end was one of their leaders.
In all of this the Renaissance city of Michelnagelo, Brunelleschi, Masaccio and Donatello does not come out too nobly. Under a sadistic leader Carita the blackshirts conduct themselves brutally. When Mussolini was deposed in September 1943 and Italy shortly afterwards surrendered, the Nazis declared Northern Italy a puppet state and fought on resolutely under Kesselring. In Florence the Jews were rounded up and shipped off to Auschwitz. Esmond Lowndes and his band of principally communist, young Utopians waged a guerrilla warfare, blowing up railway lines, assassinating fascist leaders and, with considerable bravery, saving many Jewish lives and British prisoners who, under orders to stay put in camps, made a bolt for it.
Preston’s structure of the novel is in four parts. Sometimes Lowndes narrated in the I form others in he; there is rather intriguing third part of letters and recorded diaries he made on broadcasting tapes. The denouement is a page-turner in the best traditions of Eric Ambler, Alan Furst, Alan Massie and Robert Ryan. His prose does not let the novel down and he clearly has a deep knowledge of Florentine art as well as its politics.
The mixing of fictional and actual characters is a genre which makes for both an entertaining read and an instructive one. Philip Kerr does it well in his Berlin noir novels set principally in thirties Berlin. Preston’s research is impressive, his study of the way British fascism polarised into patriotism and enlisting to the admiration of Hitler by Mosley, Diane and Unity Mitford and Esmonds’ mother particularly fascinating, real characters like Bernard Berenson, Ezra Pound and Norman Douglas appear too.
What is odd is the publishing and reviewing industry. I watch out for historical books of this nature but I did not see it reviewed anywhere nor did it appear in any of the ‘must read’ lists that come out around Xmas time . It’s not as if Preston is an unknown. The Revelations was a similarly interesting account of evangelical Christian movement in contemporary Britain. I was recommended it by close friend who, knowing I had been to Florence in my gap year and studied at the British Institute which features in the novel, thought I would enjoy it. I certainly did.