Book Review - The Road to Urbino

Roma Tearne’s rich and insightful novel opens with Ras, a middle-aged Sri Lankan, musing on the past and contemplating a bleak future in a British prison. He is facing trial for the theft of a Piero della Francesca painting, an impulsive act carried out in an attempt to draw attention to the ongoing injustices in Sri Lanka. His story unravels as part of an extended interview, over many weeks, with his lawyer, Elizabeth Saunders.

Orphaned as a young child and a casualty of the Sri Lankan conflict, Ras arrived in England aged nineteen. His father had “disappeared”, presumably abducted by government forces, and his mother was killed in an army bomb attack, “picked out by her Karma, to pay the price for the existence of the Tamil Tigers.” After a number of dead-end jobs, Ras married young, had a child, Lola, drifted in and out of affairs and finally separated from his wife.

It is only when he becomes an attendant at London’s National Gallery that Ras begins to indulge his love of painting. He finds himself strangely drawn to Piero’s The Nativity, the “sense of dust and abandonment…the look on the young mother’s face, the blue and the red of her dress, her lovely serenity”, its colours reminding him of the home he fled. He meets the charismatic and kindly art historian, Charles Boyar, who, sharing his love of Piero, invites him on a tour of Urbino in Tuscany to see more of his paintings.

Running parallel to Ras’s story is that of Alex, a self-centred writer who remains infatuated with his first love, Delia, now married to Boyar. His sense of loss mirrors Ras’s own melancholy obsession with his estranged daughter. The two men’s paths cross and become intertwined through Lola and their mutual friendship with Boyar.

Sri-Lankan born, Tearne evidently remains engaged with her native country’s troubled past and its current unrest. One of her many strengths is the ability to interweave the political and personal in her fiction. By linking these disparate narratives and opposing cultures, she makes some interesting points. The Western reverence for art is contrasted with the indifference of those struggling to rebuild their lives in post-conflict Sri Lanka – where life and justice is precarious and its ancient artefacts have either been destroyed or stolen by army looters. Ras tells Elizabeth: “I stole a bit of Western History. I knew it would cause a stir.”

War and its aftermath are underlying themes in the book. Delia continues to agonise over the fact that her grandfather had served as a Nazi officer. As a child her mother had warned her: “Memory can destroy. Those who cannot forget live in a twilight place, for remembered pain is the worst of all.” It’s a feeling Ras knows all too well.  Tearne drives this point home when two fatal explosions in the novel, the result of different wars – one long past, the other more recent – shatter the characters’ worlds and set them on different courses.

Tearne is also an acclaimed artist and her love of painting infuses the book. She draws a vivid portrait of Tuscany’s landscape. Its light, colours and texture throw into sharp relief the drab grey of Ras’s prison cell. As well as dwelling on love and loss, The Road to Urbino is about the redeeming power of art. As Ras wryly comments: “People come and go, they love you and leave you, but art lingers on with its peculiar invincibility. Only art lifts you away from the awfulness of life. Only art is able to transform it.”

Originally published in the Huffington Post (