Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708
Barry Unsworth 1930–
(Full name Barry Forster Unsworth) English novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Unsworth's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Vol. 76.
Unsworth is widely respected for his historical novels that range in setting from medieval Yorkshire to early twentieth-century Turkey. Using the past as a springboard to explore larger universal themes of greed, betrayal, and the function and effect of art in human life, Unsworth concentrates on moral ambiguities and hidden complexities of seemingly minor decisions.
Unsworth was born in Durham, England, in 1930. He graduated with an English degree from the University of Manchester in 1951. In the 1960s he moved his family to Greece and Turkey, where he worked as an English lecturer for the British Council at the Universities of Athens and Istanbul. Unsworth moved back to England in 1970 to teach at the Lennox Cook School of English, a private school that provided English classes to non-English speakers. In the late 1970s Unsworth earned a creative writing fellowship from Charlotte Mason College, Ambleside. In 1982 he was appointed Northern Arts Literary Fellow at the Universities of Durham and Newcastle. From 1984 to 1985 Unsworth was writer in residence at Liverpool University. In the early 1980s Unsworth visited Venice, Italy, to do research for his novel, Stone Virgin (1985). Later in the decade he moved to Scandinavia, living first in Sweden and then Finland, where he finished his Booker Prize-winning novel, Sacred Hunger (1992). After Sacred Hunger was published, Unsworth moved to the Umbrian countryside in Italy, where he still lives.
Unsworth gained critical success with his novel Mooncranker's Gift (1973), winning the Heinemann Fiction Award. Told mostly in flashback, Mooncranker's Gift is the story of James Farnaby, who, in the midst of an adolescent religious obsession, is given the gift of a crucifix made of sausages by his middle-aged neighbor, Mooncranker. After masturbating in the garden one day, Farnaby sees the crucifix, rotting and infested with worms. His horror at the sight haunts him for years, until he encounters Mooncranker ten years later in Istanbul. Unsworth continued his critical success in 1980 with Pascali's Island, his first effort in the historical novel genre. Set on an island in the Aegean at the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1908, Pascali's Island is told as a monthly report from Basil Pascali, an agent working undercover for the last Ottoman sultan. As he writes his report, he embellishes certain aspects of his efforts and confesses various professional trangressions, eventually realizing that the work he has devoted eighteen years to is futile. In Rage of the Vulture (1982) Unsworth again explored events at the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but from the perspectives of the sultan and the British Captain Robert Markham and his young son, Henry. Unsworth's next novel, Stone Virgin (1985) explores the impact of a Venetian statue of the Virgin Mary on three men who encounter her between 1432 and 1972. Again using various points of view, Unsworth examined the relationship between art and life. Sugar and Rum (1988) is a quasi-historical work about an author suffering from writer's block while working on a novel about the slave trade. In 1992 Unsworth published his most successful and critically acclaimed novel, Sacred Hunger, which is about a slave ship in the eighteenth century that his fictional protagonist in Sugar and Rum was researching. Morality Play (1995) also was highly successful and nominated for the Booker Prize. Set in medieval Yorkshire, Morality Play is a murder mystery and complex discussion about art's place in life. Principle characters in the novel produce a play acting out the murder to solve the mystery. In After Hannibal (1996) Unsworth left the historical genre behind to examine backbiting and treachery among a group of expatriate neighbors fighting for property in Italy's Umbrian countryside.
Response to Unsworth's work has varied, ranging from the relative indifferent reception that greeted Sugar and Rum after its publication to the nearly unanimous praise earned by Sacred Hunger, which shared the prestigious Booker Prize for literature. Morality Play was also nominated for the Booker, and Pascali's Island was widely admired for its take on the theme of creating a personal utopia. Unsworth's work has experienced a resurgence of interest during recent years with several new paperback editions of his novels.