Rachel Cusk has written three highly praised novels and an observant and rather funny book about motherhood. This short but discursive travelogue begins oddly with an account of how the author, as a child, 'would often be woken by noises from the road' – 'noises of drunken revelry' transmuting into 'inchoate monologues' and 'unearthly groans and shrieks' that went on for hours. No explanation or interpretation of this curious phenomenon is offered and it seems to have no bearing on what follows – except, I suppose, to establish the author as a particularly sensitive and imaginative little girl who lay awake in the dark a lot. She lived in Bristol at the time, in elegant Clifton, where 'the slaving past of the city was always present to me'. The situation in time and place of the opening chapter is confusing, but by the end of the second page Cusk is dismissing the entire population of contemporary Bristol as hard-hearted bigots – 'Man, woman and child, they found sensitivity intolerable. Nothing irked them more than the liberal conscience' – and I was beginning to wonder if ‘Ravings from a Padded Cell’ might not be a more suitable subtitle than ‘A Summer in Italy’.
Resolving to save her children, aged five and six, from the moral cesspit that is Bristol, and at the same time consumed by a hunger for travel 'that seemed to gnaw at the very ligaments of my soul', she puts her house on the market, takes the children