Barry Unsworth Essay - Critical Essays

Unsworth, Barry


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

The Partnership (novel) 1966
The Greeks Have a Word for It (novel) 1967
The Hide (novel) 1970; reprinted 1996
Mooncranker's Gift (novel) 1973
The Big Day (novel) 1976
Pascali's Island (novel) 1980; published in America as The Idol Hunter, 1980
The Rage of the Vulture (novel) 1982
Stone Virgin (novel) 1985
Sugar and Rum (novel) 1988
Sacred Hunger (novel) 1992
Morality Play (novel) 1995
After Hannibal (novel) 1996; also published as Umbrian Mosaic, 1997


Anatole Broyard (review date 9 October 1977)

SOURCE: "Painted into Opposite Corners," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. LXXXII, No. 41, October 9, 1977, p. 14.

[In the following review, Broyard compares Unsworth's The Big Day to MacDonald Harris' Yukiko. Though his critical evaluation focuses more on Yukiko, Broyard uses it to illustrate why he finds The Big Day a disappointing follow-up to Mooncranker's Gift.]

Yukiko and The Big Day illustrate, all too neatly in my opinion, two contrasting attitudes toward the novel, two unrewarding corners into which quite a few authors have painted themselves. MacDonald Harris writes a dogged, log-ahead prose under the assumption that his story is irresistible enough to grip and hold the reader. Barry Unsworth offers impressive style and technique that overwhelm the thin and rather stale idea behind his novel. Mr. Harris's style, his novelist's equipment, seem to be virtually forgotten in his preoccupation with his subject. His diction is deadpan, and there is hardly a memorable sentence in the book. His tone seems solemnified by the grandeur of what he is attempting. He has no time for frivolity, for bandying words or digressing into the psychological complexities of his characters. He is a bringer of a message, a purveyor of profundity.

Compared to him, Mr. Unsworth strikes me as a literary playboy. He enjoys the run and rhythm of a sentence, the happy impact of a well-chosen word. He has such a consummate talent for getting inside his characters' obsessions, he so blurs the figure-ground boundaries, that his characters spill like wine over the table he has set. It is, however, merely a platter of hors d'oeuvre.

Yukiko concerns four men, three American soldiers and a Japanese-American interpreter, who land on the island of Hokkaido in August of 1945. Their original mission was to deliver Havenmeyer, a commando, and his interpreter Ikeda to the island by submarine so that he might blow up a heavy-water plant. Under ambiguous circumstances, the submarine runs aground on a reef, and Gus, the sub commander, and Angelo, his navigator, are forced ashore with the other two.

Havenmeyer is a caricature, a destructive machine. Ikeda is a shadow, a mere decoder of language. Gus, the narrator, seems to have been hired, as one hires a butler, to bring a wry, humanistic perspective to the proceedings. Against all these predictable elements, Angelo embodies the unpredictable. He is moody, ironic, laconic, mysterious, forever saying things the others fail to understand. This deliberate inscrutibility, one supposes, is meant to create an aura of ominousness, of more-than-meets-the-eye, of suspended tensions.

When Gus asks Angelo whether he deliberately ran the submarine aground, Angelo will not talk about it, even though they have been friends and fellow officers for several years, even though four men were drowned as a result of Angelo's "mistake." It is not "healthy," Angelo says, to dwell on such things. He is not traumatized by the incident; he just does not feel in the mood to discuss it. He is, in other words, a prototype of contemporary fiction.

It may seem that I am laboring the point, but in fact most of the action in the book is of this nature. Mr. Harris is forever retreating into coy obscurity. There is no reason, for example, for Gus and Angelo to accompany Havenmeyer on his suicidal mission. The war is almost over, they point out. Under the circumstances, the mission is not only suicidal, but pointless. Havenmeyer invited them to leave, adding that they are useless...

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Michael Malone (review date 11 January 1981)

SOURCE: "Other Times and Places," in New York Times Book Review, January 1, 1981, p. 10.

[In the following review, Malone provides an appreciative assessment of Unsworth's main character in The Idol Hunter.]

In 1908 on an irrelevant Greek island of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, the Levantine spy Basil Pascali writes his 216th irrelevant report to Constantinople, this time to the Sultan himself. Monthly, for 20 changeless years, the fat shabby informer has received for his services the same sum but never the slightest response to these millions of words poured into an Imperial void. In the silence he has written his life away and in so doing has fashioned it into the...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 7 February 1983)

SOURCE: "Books of the Times," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1983, p. 15.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt offers praise for Unsworth's evocation of the Middle East in the early twentieth century in The Rage of the Vulture.]

In Barry Unsworth's latest novel, The Rage of the Vulture, Capt. Robert Markham—a British infantry officer posted to Constantinople during the final years of the Ottoman Empire—is a complicated and not very sympathetic protagonist. He regards his 10-year-old son, Henry, mainly as a rival for his wife's affection.

He resents his wife for her failure to understand a secret thing about him, which secret,...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 13 March 1983)

SOURCE: "Atonement in Turkey," in New York Times Book Review, March 13, 1983, p. 7.

[In the following review, Edwards finds The Rage of the Vulture an admirable attempt to reveal personal conflict amid catastrophic world events.]

The recent conquest of America's television screens by The Winds of War is the latest evidence of our desire to know the origins of the cataclysms the 20th century has made so commonplace. Or since such entertainments conceal as much as they reveal, maybe it is our desire not to know these origins too accurately, on the not unreasonable assumption that the whole truth might be more than we could handle.


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John Clute (review date 16 August 1985)

SOURCE: "Death in Venice," in New Statesman, Vol. 110, No. 2839, August 16, 1985, p. 28.

[In the following review, Clute finds the meaning of Stone Virgin somewhat confusing but appreciates Unsworth's depiction of Venice.]

Bulging like a teardrop into its poisonous lagoon, Venice boasts a geography so graspable for purposes of art that it comes as a surprise not that so many stories are set there, but so few. In its fatal intercourse with the sea, the city models an inherent tendency of the Western mind to see the world as a series of dire consequences: the old familiar marriages of love and death, art and decay, power and corruption, sex and drowning.


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Katha Pollitt (review date 6 April 1986)

SOURCE: "A Sexual Rectangle," in New York Times Book Review, April 6, 1986, p. 27.

[In the following review, Pollitt considers Unsworth's figure of the Madonna in Stone Virgin more interesting than his depiction of his human characters.]

Just when I thought I couldn't stand to read another semiautobiographical novel about a failing marriage, a blocked writer or a young man on drugs and the make, along comes the British novelist Barry Unsworth (Mooncranker's Gift) with a book that makes me think of that old Monty Python line "And now for something completely different." Stone Virgin is certainly that. Set in Venice in three different...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Barry Unsworth with Phil Hogan (interview date 18 October 1992)

SOURCE: "Standing outside England and Looking In," in London Observer, No. 10,488, October 18, 1992, p. 59.

[In the following interview, Unsworth reflects on his childhood and literary influences as well as on winning the prestigious Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger.]

On balance, Barry Unsworth is in favour of literary prizes, even if he has to share one.

'I'm glad enough to have trousered the money,' he says, smiling diffidently—as much at his turn of phrase as at the sudden novelty of being £10,000 better off. 'And if the judges were genuinely at loggerheads between myself and Ondaatje, it was better to divide the prize than settling on a third who...

(The entire section is 931 words.)

Herbert Mitgang (review date 23 December 1992)

SOURCE: "Books of the Times: Trading in Misery on a Doomed Slave Ship," in New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1992.

[In the following review, Mitgang calls Sacred Hunger "a remarkable novel in every way."]

Reading Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth's long and beautifully written novel, you know you are in the hands of a master craftsman when you find yourself slowing down on page after page to savor his thoughts and words.

A hypocritical shipowner engaged in the slave trade: "Wealth had not dimmed his need to be liked, his desire to appear knowledgeable."

The shipowner's self-praise for including a doctor on his...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)

Sybil S. Steinberg (review date 21 August 1995)

SOURCE: Review of Morality Play, in Publisher's Weekly, August 21, 1995, p. 43-44.

[In the following review, Steinberg praises Morality Play as a "gripping" examination of the tension between appearances and reality.]

A portentous opening sentence—"It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on"—sets the tone for Booker Prize winner Unsworth's (Sacred Hunger) gripping story [Morality Play]. Indeed, a larger spectre than those two deaths hangs over this tale set in 14th-century England. The Black Plague is abroad in the land, and here it also symbolizes the corruption of the Church and of the nobility. One bleak...

(The entire section is 376 words.)

Janet Burroway (review date 12 November 1995)

SOURCE: "The Great Pretenders," in New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, pp. 11+.

[In the following review, Burroway cites minor flaws in Morality Play, but otherwise praises the novel's deft universality of theme.]

In a bitter winter in 14th-century England, a young scholar-priest comes upon a troupe of traveling players. These are violent times, when victims of the plague are heaped in common pits and "the spirit of murder is never far." Nicholas Barber is in several sorts of flight: from the verbosity of the Latin manuscripts he has been set to copy, from the wrath of the bishop whose kindness he has betrayed and from the husband of the (most recent)...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

Charles Nicholl (review date 12 November 1995)

SOURCE: "All the Stage Is a World," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 12, 1995, pp. 2, 7.

[In the following review, Nicholl presents an appreciative assessment of Morality Play, maintaining that the novel is a worthy successor to Unsworth's prior works.]

It is three years since Barry Unsworth's last novel, Sacred Hunger, won plaudits and prizes (including the United Kingdom's prestigious Booker Prize) for its rich, harrowing portrayal of lives aboard an 18th-Century English slaving-ship.

The setting of his new book is very different, and the tone of it even more so. Morality Play tells the story of a troupe of players on...

(The entire section is 911 words.)

Adam Begley (review date 24 December 1995)

SOURCE: "Barry Unsworth Rescues 'All the World's a Stage' from Cliche," in Chicago Tribune Books, December 24, 1995, pp. 3, 6.

[In the following review, Begley praises Unsworth's deft handling of the historical novel genre and his thought-provoking themes in Morality Play.]

Morality Play, a fine new novel by Barry Unsworth, who won the 1992 Booker Prize for his Sacred Hunger, works brilliantly on three levels. It's an accurate, carefully imagined historical novel, set in 14th Century England; a dark and suspenseful murder mystery; and a provocative meditation on the birth of a new art form. Each layer adds a different flavor and texture. Binding the whole...

(The entire section is 958 words.)

Richard Bernstein (review date 17 January 1996)

SOURCE: "When Someone Zigs Instead of Zags," in New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1996, p. C16.

[In the following review, Bernstein praises Unsworth's "tightly constructed murder mystery" and the evocative details with which he builds his story in Morality Play.]

The first few sentences of this cunning, suspenseful medieval murder mystery by Barry Unsworth [Morality Play] are a model of literary compression and an illustration of the artfulness that adorns the novel's every page. With quick strokes of the pen, Mr. Unsworth introduces his narrator, Nicholas Barber, as a priest who in the recent past was searching for a meal but ended up in an act of...

(The entire section is 1029 words.)

Anthony Quinn (review date 4 August 1996)

SOURCE: "Creepy Crawling, Heavy Breathing," in New York Times Book Review, August 4, 1996, p. 12.

[In the following review, Quinn offers praise for the reprint edition of The Hide.]

Better known for his potent fictional reconstructions of time past—most memorably the slave trade epic Sacred Hunger, which shared the Booker Prize in 1992—Barry Unsworth reveals in this early novel, first published in Britain in 1970, an equally assured grasp of the modern world. Bristling with menace, The Hide is a superbly modulated study of the blighting of an innocent. While the canvas is somewhat narrower than one might expect from Mr. Unsworth, the texture of the...

(The entire section is 895 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 9 March 1997)

SOURCE: "The Weight of History," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review, Eder considers After Hannibal a "dazzling" exploration of history, greed, and betrayal.]

"Do you know the land where the lemontrees flower?" Goethe wrote in a poem that helped shift the elevation angle at which the Romantics regarded earthly salvation. Instead of going upward to heaven, you went sideways to Italy.

Since then, untold hundreds of thousands have traveled from Northern Europe, the United States and elsewhere, not so much for the sun as to follow a grand line of beauty and aesthetic order that shifted from Greece to Rome,...

(The entire section is 1316 words.)

Hilary Mantel (review date 9 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Etrurian Shades," in New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 30.

[In the following review, Mantel finds After Hannibal uneven in structure and character and overly formal in language.]

Barry Unsworth's latest novel [After Hannibal] is a sad comedy of cheats and fools, a story of unbounded beauty and blighted hopes, of multiple and layered betrayals, "a regression of falsehoods and deceptions going back through all the generations to the original agreement, God's pact with Adam." Its setting is the Umbrian countryside, "the hills that Perugino and Piero della Francesca looked at," and the little hill towns with their art treasures and their...

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Miranda Schwartz (review date 9 March 1997)

SOURCE: "Meet the Neighbors," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 9, 1997, p. 4.

[In the following review, Schwartz finds the characterizations in After Hannibal particularly intriguing and rewarding to the reader.]

After Hannibal, the latest novel from Booker Prize-winner Barry Unsworth (Morality Play, Sacred Hunger), is a deliciously keen observation of strangers in a strange land, deliciously keen observation of strangers in a strange land. Unsworth reminds the reader of Muriel Spark and Barbara Pym; he shares their understated wit and their talent for clean and stylish description. This contemporary novel even owes debt to E. M. Forster in its...

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Patricia Lothrop-Green (review date September 1997)

SOURCE: "It's Hip! It's Contemporary! It's Literature!," in School Library Journal, Vol. 43, No. 9, September 1997, pp. 128-29.

[In the following review, Lothrop-Green provides a brief overview of the plot of Morality Play and praises the novel's exploration of the role of art in revealing universal truths.]

Barry Unsworth's Morality Play (Norton, 1995) was praised by novelist Hilary Mantel (in the New York Times Book Review) as "a near-perfect novel, with a diamond's glitter and a diamond's hardness: a profound meditation on the nature of justice and the transforming power of art." It is also a gripping mystery, a coming-of-age story, and a...

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Further Reading


Altinel, Savkar. "Trinitarian Tanglings." Times Literary Supplement (30 August 1985): 946.

Altinel finds Stone Virgin disappointing as the final volume in Unsworth's literary triptych.

Bernard O'Donoghue, Bernard. "Medieval Mysteries." Times Literary Supplement (8 September 1995): 7.

O'Donoghue maintains that Morality Play is Unsworth's best book to date.

Colegate, Isabel. "Dreams of Umbria." in Times Literary Supplement (30 August 1996): 24.

Colegate finds After...

(The entire section is 207 words.)