January 3, 2013 by markstani
One of the best things about committing yourself to ploughing through a literary prize longlist is the joy of discovery: when it makes an avid read out of something you ordinarily would not have looked at twice.
I can’t say I had too much expectation for Roma Tearne’s fifth novel, The Road To Urbino: its premise seemed to veer dangerously close to the detective/thriller genre, and its qualifications as an ‘Asian’ novel – which was, after all, why I was propelled to read it in the first place – seemed to me to be spurious best.
I’m glad to say I was wrong on both counts. For a start, this is no whodunnit: even the back cover blurb tells you the main character committed the crime. And as for the book’s provenance, despite for the most part being set in the Italian countryside, it is in so many ways as Asian as they come.
Tearne was born in Sri Lanka, whose conflict she fled for England at the age of ten, and she obviously draws on that experience to plot the early life of Lynton Rasanagium – Ras – who also escapes to the UK at an early age after bearing witness to an unspeakable tragedy.
It is a tragedy that has defined his life. He is now in a prison cell, awaiting trial for the theft – to which he readily admits – of a priceless, mysterious fresco. Through the course of the novel, in the form of a series of conversations with his barrister, Elizabeth, as she prepares his defence, he unfurls the circumstances that led to his apparently heinous act.
Worse than the prospect of a long prison term, Ras cannot absolve himself of guilt over the pain he has caused his daughter Lola, with whom he endured a tempestuous relationship from her early childhood, to the point where she no longer accepts him as her father.
Ras’s story gradually becomes intertwined with that of his chief witness, the shabby novelist Alex Benson, and Charles Boyar, an art critic of significant repute, with whom Ras was once fleetingly acquainted.
Alex is afforded his own sections of first person narration, in which he tells his tale of lust for a life involving Charles’ wife Delia and her beautiful young son, nudging towards a point where the two main strands of the plot converge.
The narrative style is interesting, and certainly takes some getting used to: it imbues the story with an urgency and a certain extra intrigue, though its conversational style can sometimes interrupt the flow.
Where it doesn’t quite work is in some of the sections related by Alex, which can be slow-burning, tenuous in terms of Elizabeth’s quest to uncover the true back-story on behalf of Ras, and unrealistically over-detailed when it comes to the matter of Charles’ late affair. The role of Elizabeth, too, verges on the contrived at times.
None of which entirely detracts from a thoroughly engrossing read; indeed, it is to Tearne’s credit that she can relate in such gripping fashion a tale in which the majority of the leading characters – in particular Alex and Lola – come across as wholly unappetising.
Where the novel really succeeds is in Tearne’s rich evocation of the emigrant experience, from Ras’s abundant early life in Sri Lanka, to the tremendous alienation he faces in London, and the dilemmas thrown up by his elder brother’s staunch support for the Tamil Tiger cause.
Tearne also has some serious things to say about the deeply personal wounds conflicts can inflict long after the guns have fallen silent, and how each passing generation copes best with a tragic past they can never shake off, no matter how hard they try. It is in that respect, perhaps, that the book’s real ‘Asian-ness’ shines through.
‘The Road To Urbino’ isn’t perfect, but it is clever and complicated and accomplished, and above all worth the effort, however much your first impression may seek to dictate otherwise.