British novelist Barry Unsworth dies

Barry Unsworth

By Len Phelan in Britain:

Obituary: Barry Unsworth, novelist, (August 10 1930-June 5 2012)

Friday 22 June 2012

Barry Unsworth, who died aged 81 in Italy earlier this month, was a miner’s son from the village of Wingate in County Durham who became one of this country’s outstanding historical novelists.

After attending grammar school and then university Unsworth, whose initial ambition was to be a journalist, unsuccessfully tried his hand at short-story writing before turning to the novel form.

He wrote 17, some based on his experiences living and working in Mediterranean countries which are the location of many of his novels.
Greece and Turkey figure in early fiction like The Greeks Have A Word For It (1967) and Mooncranker’s Gift (1973) and his fascination with the enclosed world of the Ottoman empire is memorably evoked in Pascali’s Island, written in 1980, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize and later made into a film.

His assured handling of narrative and characters with rich and complex inner lives, interacting with the social and political realities of a particular time and place, marked him out as a rare talent.

With almost painterly descriptive powers, Unsworth was able to conjure specific eras and places, most notably in Sacred Hunger (1992) with its evocation of 18th-century Liverpool and life and death aboard a slave ship.

A brilliant critique of the profit-driven frenzy of the slave trade — it gained Unsworth the Booker — its theme of colonial greed and ambition and the consequences of its decline and fall for future generations recurs in many of his books.

Such studies range from The Ruby In Her Navel (2006), set during the 12th-century Norman conquest of Sicily, to the dark narrative of an obsessive national hero worshipper in Losing Nelson (1999) to Mesopotamia on the outbreak of WWI in Land Of Marvels.

Unsworth, who was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1973, spent the last 16 years of his life in Umbria.

In a recent interview, he said he had become estranged from Britain and lost confidence in his “ability to register the contemporary scene … the kind of things people say, the styles of dress, the politics” with “sufficient subtlety and accuracy.”

It’s a matter of regret that he felt unable to do so. His earliest novel The Partnership (1966) which explores alternative lifestyles in Cornwall and Sugar and Rum (1988), set in the Liverpool of the Toxteth riots, show how acutely his novels address troubled times at home and abroad from a profoundly humanist perspective. He is a writer who will be sorely missed.

See also here.

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