In Love and War
The true star of Alex Preston’s In Love and War is not the hapless protagonist, Esmond Lowndes, but the city of Florence that gleams in the background. Whether Florence is being described as “a mass of shadows under the hills”, or personified as “[resuming] life haltingly, stretching its stiff limbs”, Preston’s Florence reads as an authentic and much-loved place.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of all the characters in In Love and War. Esmond himself, the reluctant British fascist, rings true, as do the other English fascists, including Diana and Oswald Mosley, and the cast of eccentrics who inhabit Florence, including the writer Norman Douglas. However, the motivations of the two main female characters, who take huge risks to be with Esmond, are unclear. Preston would appear to realise this since when Esmond tells Ada “I can’t love you if I don’t know you”, she empties her handbag, revealing a collection of feminine accessories, a book of poetry, and a photograph of Esmond, which is all the elucidation she – or Preston – provides.
In Love and War describes how ordinary lives might continue even in terrible circumstances, how people may still fall in love, cook meals, watch the seasons change, while a war is being carried on. Esmond refers to the war as a series of individual stories, “stacked on top of each other, entwining, competing”. This story of a British fascist in Italy is a fascinating one.
In Love and War is a well-written book which will appeal to readers of literary historical fiction. I would have preferred it, however, if the book had contained an Afterword. When real and fictional characters are intertwined and reputations besmirched, it would be helpful to have even a brief guide as to which characters and events were true, and which were purely fictional.