Barry Unsworth is generally thought of as a historical novelist, since he won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger (1992), about the slave trade, and was shortlisted again for the award for Morality Play (1995), a tale of murder which takes place in medieval times. Yet The Hide is set firmly in contemporary England. Although it contains echoes of D. H. Lawrence and of the angry working-class fiction of post-World War II, it perhaps will remind readers most strongly of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock in its horrifying depiction of the corruption of innocence, not least of all because its action opens at a seaside pleasure palace.
Unsworth tells his story using two alternating first-person narrators—with uncannily accurate voices appropriate to their diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic classes—in sections that crosscut more feverishly as the story moves to its conclusion. The novel’s interlocking structure comes to mirror the way in which the lives of these characters, who are initially so disparate both socially and spatially, impinge on and affect one another. Unsworth’s two narrators are Simon Thebus, a man in his late forties who is living with (sponging off might be more accurate) his widowed sister, Audrey Wilcox, in her rural home; and Josiah, known as Josh, a twenty-year-old rifle range attendant at the amusement park whom Audrey hires as her gardener when her brother’s inattention to the property threatens its reversion to some “primeval swamp.”
Not that Simon has not been busy, for he has been excavating the vast network of “the hide” from which he can spy secretly on others, on the girls who ride by the property on their bicycles or, using his binoculars, on the woman across the way as she goes about her housework unaware of being watched by an audience. His voyeurism causes him both ecstasy and torment, pleasurable titillation, sometimes to climax, followed by “desolation” and “self-disgust” and “malaise.” Although he has lived with his sister for fifteen years, he still feels isolated and excluded from the circle of her acquaintances, and so he sees Josh’s arrival as gardener as a threat to a tidy, if strained, existence with Audrey. Widowed and recovered from a hysterectomy, Audrey displays an outer poise, making believe she is content now to live withdrawn and emotionally asleep. Yet her rejection by the local dramatic society, which refuses to cast her as Mrs. Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts, reduces her to frenzied tears, revealing how tenuous is her hold on her self-control and helping to propel her into a motherly but strangely seductive interest in Josh, with whom she shares her art books, many of them featuring pictures of nudes. When Audrey orders Simon to leave after he embarrasses her by plopping his false teeth into the mousse she has prepared for her guests, he retaliates by plotting the expulsion of Josh from the estate, so that at the end he will win back control of his territory and be alone with a dependent Audrey after she has attempted suicide by cutting her throat.
If Simon is a voyeur where sex is concerned, Mortimer Cade experiences sex only vicariously. Apparently physically impotent himself, his pandering and lechery take the form of insinuating himself into others’ lives, longing to hear descriptions of a graphic nature and, in effect, possessing the woman through the other. This need may have its source in a denial of his own repressed homosexuality, for the bonds he forms with younger men—which are more nearly a kind of bondage—are clearly homosocial in nature. Both Mortimer and Simon turn the intimate friendships in which Josh is involved, with the older Audrey and his sexual liaison with the younger Marion, into ménages à trois of a kind, in which Mortimer and Simon actively observe rather than participate physically. Mortimer, indeed, is a frightening, almost Iago-like villain, who dissembles and tries to sully everything with which he comes into contact. The depths of his evil nature are suggested in the novel’s first pages when he says that the immigrant Cypriot, the outsider who threatens to take the food from their mouths, should be “incarcinerated,” a coined word that neatly calls up images both of political tyranny and of the gas chambers. Yet often Mortimer’s language, though it exerts an undisputed power over Josh, seems divorced or disconnected from the reality, which renders it all that more treacherous for those he dominates. Obsessed with the dark side of life, Mortimer orders Josh to visualize the night world after the pubs close so vividly, with all the vomiting and urinating and fornicating that ensue, that Josh will become physically ill and believe that only Mortimer in all the world, and no woman like Marion, could ever be able to hold and comfort him.
Josh, the novel’s other first-person narrator and really its focal character, is barely beyond his teen years; product of a family in which his father “took up” with his own half- sister, he is insecure and in need of approval, particularly from those older...