I’m a sucker for biographical notes and always disappointed when they merely list previous books with a tight little sentence about where the author lives if you’re lucky. Partly nosiness on my part I’ll admit but often a little knowledge of an author’s life illuminates their writing. Reading one of Roma Tearne’s novels without knowing that she had fled Sri Lanka at the age of ten or that she had trained as a painter and filmmaker would not be quite the experience it is with that knowledge. All five of her novels have a Sri Lankan connection and in the case of The Road to Urbino art plays a significant role.
It begins with the line ‘Last night I dreamt I was in Talaimannar again’, an odd echo of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, as Ras tells his story to Elizabeth, the barrister who is defending him against a charge of terrorism. Ras has stolen a precious Italian painting, partly for sheer love of it and partly to draw attention to the injustices still perpetrated in his home country. Interwoven with Ras’s testimony are the stories of the two men unwittingly instrumental in bringing about the theft: Charles Boyar, a renowned art historian who recognising Ras’s love of art has taken him under his wing, and Charles’s self absorbed friend Alex Benson. It’s a story of love, loss and obsession: Ras longs for his daughter Lola who he deserted when she was a child; Charles and his wife Delia share an intense passion for each other and Alex remains obsessed with Delia, decades after their brief affair has ended. The anguish of war is never far away but Tearne’s belief in the redemptive power of art shines through this powerful book. Her artistic training is evident not just in the knowledge with which she writes about Italian Renaissance art but also in her painterly descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, so vivid that you can almost hear the cicadas.
I’m off on my hols for a week and had I been going to Italy I would have saved The Road to Urbino to take with me but as it is I’ll be closer to home and hoping to make inroads into the groaning TBR pile.