I was quite surprised to come across another book by Matthew Kneale as I hadn’t seen anything by him since reading his novel English Passengers which was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize.

This book is very different. Subtitled Lockdown Life in the Eternal City it’s an account of the author’s experience of the early months of the COVID pandemic in Rome where he’s lived for the past 18 years with his wife and two children. An email he sent to friends and acquaintances early in lockdown soon became a daily report lasting from early March to May 4th when restrictions on daily life were eased. Many of the everyday experiences he records are similar to ones in this country, the buying in of supplies, last meals out while they’re still permitted and the exodus of many of the wealthier from the cities. The differences are also interesting, in particular how the much more restrictive measures, such as papers needed for moving about the city, were accepted more readily in Rome. The  lack of people moving around the city enabled Kneale to take some beautiful photographs of the sights of a deserted Rome by declaring to the authorities that he needed to travel outside his home to research the writing of his book.

After several weeks of diary entries describing his own experiences the tone of the book changes and this is where it becomes more interesting. He starts by tracing the history of plagues in Rome, the Justinian Plague in the 540s which returned in 1348 and again in 1527 to be known as the Black Death. Gradually his diary turns more into a history of Rome and an examination of Italian culture and politics. His choice of subjects is also prompted by the walks he takes around the city and the buildings he passes and he is particularly interested in Mussolini’s contribution to the cityscape. Google street view is a great help to seeing it all as nearly as possible to his experience, although the book is well illustrated with photographs and maps.

I found these lengthy diary entries on Italian history and politics fascinating. His love of the city is obvious and dates from 1969 when, as a child of eight, he accompanied his father, scriptwriter Nigel Kneale to the city. The film his father was there to work on was never made but Kneale fell in the love with Rome and told his parents that was where he wanted to live. The book is sure to make anyone else long to get to know Rome or renew their acquaintance with the city. As an added bonus it also contains some appetising pasta recipes provided by Cinzia the concierge of Kneale’s apartment block. It’s a book to delight anyone with an interest in European culture.

Reviewed by Sue Glynn

Atlantic Books
February 2021