I’ve read seven novels by Barry Unsworth, and with each book, I feel like I’ve met a different novelist.
Born in England in 1930, Unsworth has written more than a dozen novels, including the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger, which I’ve yet to read. I first stumbled across his work in college, when I randomly picked up the medieval thriller Morality Play. Since then, I’ve continued to read his work with an admiration that has geometrically increased in intensity.
His work has had an enormous impact on how I approach setting and structure, and his novel The Hide gave me the courage to experiment with dueling first-person perspectives in my second novel, The Island Circus.
Here’s a rundown of the Unsworth novels I’ve read, with a brief explanation of how awesome they are. I’ll go in the order I read them:
A medieval murder mystery that rivals Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for its convincing portrayal of a setting and era — in this case, 14th century England. A monk on the run joins up with a traveling theater troupe that decides to put on a play about a murder in a small town, and their performance uncovers the uncomfortable truth about what actually happened. Hypnotic.
The Hide/Pascali’s Island
During a period of full-on Unsworth obsession, I read these two books concurrently, and immediately followed them with After Hannibal, which I’ll discuss next. The Hide keys directly into my affection for gothic settings — Unsworth’s novel takes place at a creepy British estate — as well as my love for secret passages, warrens of tunnels, and old family secrets. Its most striking features are its dueling narrators, one of whom is a mentally handicapped gardener.
Pascali’s Island takes place in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire on a small Greek island. The protagonist, Basil Pascali, has spent his life spying on the locals on behalf of the empire, but as the story hurtles toward an explosive finale, we start to wonder if poor old Basil has been bonkers all these years. Seldom have I read a novel that tightens the screws so relentlessly and so well.
Pure shenanigans. And it has nothing to do with the great military leader of old or Thomas Harris’ infamous serial killer. Nope, this one takes place in a sleepy village in Umbria, Italy, and it does nothing more than chronicle the interlocking stories of several characters who have just moved to the village. Some are ex-pats looking to retire, while others are hucksters looking to make a quick buck. I like to think of this one as Unsworth-lite. It’s simultaneously a tour-de-force of setting — fans of travelogue books should enjoy it — and a master-class in plotting.
Fans of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels would do well to read this stunning novel, which follows the tragic path a biographer takes as he grapples with the life of the great British naval hero, Lord Horatio Nelson. The book includes many rousing descriptions of Nelson’s triumphs, but one scene has lingered with me all these years:
The biographer employs an assistant who is his intellectual opposite. She watches American Idol and reads tabloid magazines, while he only reads the classics. But at one point, she asks him a question about Nelson that goes beyond the scope of the work they’ve done. When he asks her how she knew to even ask the question, she explains that she had done some reading about Nelson on her own. The revelation that (what he sees as) a clucking halfwit had done some reading on her own stuns the biographer, and for one fleeting moment, he connects with her.
Moments like that are why I read books.
The Greeks Have a Word For It
Another nutty excursion with a powerful sense of place, this one takes place in Athens in the aftermath of the Greek Civil War. Short and sweet.
The Songs of the Kings
A close second for me to Losing Nelson, The Songs of the Kings is Unsworth’s cynical spin on the Iphigenia myth. All of the major players from the Greek side of the Trojan War make an appearance, including Agamemnon, Odysseus and Ajax, et al. Unsworth reimagines the lead-up to the invasion of Troy as a story of backdoor deals, double-crosses and general skullduggery. Odysseus is his nominal villain, while a mysterious storyteller known only as the Singer watches these events unfold. Rumor has it that the Singer is working on his masterwork — an epic poem about the coming war with Troy.
I searched far and wide for an interview with Unsworth, but all I could find was this C-SPAN video of him reading from his novel Land of Marvels.
Morality Play was made into a movie called The Reckoning. I’ve not seen it.
Ditto for Pascali’s Island.
No one has time to read everything, but as I move through adulthood, I’ve sensed a great need to read everything by the authors I most admire. That list includes Unsworth, and it’s high time I finish the rest of his books.
I can’t wait.