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Featured Author: Barry Unsworth

February 7, 2009 by Reader's Connection

Sacred Hunger

I just finished re-reading Barry Unsworth`s Sacred Hunger, and I found it even more moving than I did when I read it in the 1990s. There were some characters and some crucial story turns that I´d forgotten; and in memory I´d changed one character´s fate, through some kind of fictional wishful thinking. I don’t think I´ve used the word “overpowering” since this blog began, but this novel is overpowering.

It tracks the one doomed voyage of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant. Don’t get me wrong, the ship doesn’t sink. But she does disappear.

William Kemp is himself a Liverpool merchant who is struggling with financial problems. He hopes that things will be set aright by his venture in “the Africa trade.”

His son Erasmus spends the first part of the novel on a voyage of his own. Seeking the hand of a well-born local girl, he attempts (pathetically) to act in a production of The Enchanted Island, an “improved” version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He even leads a mutiny among the cast members. But when his father’s fortunes go awry, he becomes obsessed with redeeming the family’s standing.

Matthew Paris is William’s nephew, whose life is in ruins at the novel’s start and who signs on as the Liverpool Merchant’s doctor.

These three are said to be the novel’s main characters, but there are so many others in my head. I feel compelled to name Blair & Sullivan & Calley & Deakin, four hapless guys who are kidnapped in Liverpool to serve on the slave ship. And Thurso, the ship’s captain, who obeys his own private counselor. And Kireku & Tongmen & Tabakali, among other Africans who are sold into slavery and then have a chance to create new identities under unforeseen circumstances in the new world.

Speaking of worlds, old and new: this novel gives us the world of Liverpool, some of whose residents are money-conscious to an extent that could startle some modern-day Wall Streeters; the world of a ship at sea; the world of slave-gathering in Africa; then of a ship stocked with slaves, which is a different vessel altogether; and then, unexpectedly, the wild world of Florida. I count myself lucky to have made this voyage again.


Land of Marvels

Unsworth’s 2009 title, Land of Marvels, is set in 1914, in what is now Iraq. Somerville is a British archaeologist who fears that his dig–and his career–are endangered by the train line that the Germans are building. An oil guy from America appears on the scene. The Ottoman Empire is crumbling, and everyone wants a piece.

The climactic action near the end of the novel was a bit too climactic for me, but otherwise the book is rewarding, witty and entertaining and–as usual with Unsworth–graced with a fascinating historical perspective.



Morality Play

My sister-in-law didn’t think much of Morality Play. But it was the next of Unsworth’s novels to be released after Sacred Hunger, and that may have put it at a disadvantage. It’s a much slimmer book and covers less ground. On its own terms, though, I think it’s spell-binding.

We’re in fourteenth-century England. Nicholas Barber is a priest with chastity issues, and to avoid some problems that he has created he joins a traveling group of players.

Their usual stock-in-trade is morality plays, with one actor playing
God the Father and newcomer Nicholas playing the Devil’s Fool. But they visit a town where a murder has been committed, and they draw a bigger crowd by incorporating elements of this current intrigue into their performance. Thus “true crime” literature is born. And the troupe is in trouble.



In the opening pages of his non-fiction book Crete Unsworth has written words that will come as no surprise to readers of any of the books mentioned above.

I often use the past, sometimes the remote past, as a setting for my fiction. It’s a matter of temperament, I suppose, but I find this distant focus liberating, clearing away contemporary clutter and accidental associations that might undermine my story, and allowing me to make comparisons with what I see as the realities of the present.


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