In Love and War is the third novel from Alex Preston, following 2010’s This Bleeding City – which won The Edinburgh International Book Festival Readers’ First Book Award, and was chosen as one of Waterstones’ New Voices of 2010 – and its follow-up, The Revelations, which was released in 2012 to much critical acclaim.
The novel follows Esmond Lowndes on a journey from an affair at Cambridge University to the beautiful city of Florence, where he is to run “Radio Firenze”, an attempt to forge ties between The British Union of Fascists and Mussolini’s government. The shadows of Mussolini and, later, Hitler, hang heavy over the city as war moves from a dark possibility to a grim reality. As events unfold, Esmond sheds his youthful pursuits and grows into adulthood.
As the title suggests, this really is an epic and magnificently ambitious novel. But through his graceful grasp of prose, Preston navigates the story while always making the reader feel a part of what is going on. There are times that it feels like we could be reading the manuscript to a grandiose blockbuster, and times where it feels like we are lounging on the banks of the Arno reading the diary of a man enjoying a summer filled with love, culture and wine with his friends.
Preston has always been a writer who thoroughly believes in the art of research when writing fiction and that is shown here to breathtaking effect. He researched everything possible here from flying in biplanes, to skinny dipping, to The British Wireless and Television museum. His first-hand experiences come across superbly as he weaves them into the novel, giving more depth to what Esmond and his friends do and encounter.
The biggest compliment that I could pay to In Love and War is that every time I managed to put the book down I still found myself lost in the Florentine landscape that Preston so lovingly and vividly creates.
“We’re all individuals now. Now more than ever. My story – me and Ada, everything that happened – it’s simple enough, really. The war is a million such stories stacked on top of each other, entwining, competing. You find the right story, the right truth, the war’s secret centre.”
This quote somehow manages to tie up everything that is so wonderful about this piece of fiction, and Preston’s work in general. Here, he has taken an event of global significance and broken it down to the feelings and relationships between his characters, and the effect the wider situation has on them. That is the true heart of this story.
**** out of 5 stars.