An appreciation: Novelist Barry Unsworth leaves a rich legacy in his works
June 13, 2012 4:00 AM
By Bob Hoover Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ray Bradbury's death last week overshadowed in America the passing of another important novelist -- Barry Unsworth, who died of lung cancer at 81. Unsworth was one of the pre-eminent historical novelists of our day, a writer whose curiosity about the past stretched across centuries.
"Sacred Hunger" ranks as his finest achievement, I think, as did the judges of Britain's popular literary contest, the Man Booker Prize. Yet, he did not win it outright but shared it with Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient," in 1992. Again, Unsworth was upstaged by another writer as Mr. Ondaatje's lesser work was turned into an entertaining film, extending the book's life while "Sacred Hunger" remained a print creation.
It's no wonder, though. The novel might be too powerful as a morality lesson to appeal to a Hollywood mogul. "Sacred Hunger" addresses the sordid secret of England's complicity in the slave trade. Liverpool companies provided the ships and crews for carrying human cargo to the Americas.
Mr. Unsworth began his research years ago when he lived in Liverpool, where "the evidence of the slave trade is still everywhere," he said in a 2008 program at the University of Pittsburgh. "Without the evidence of this horrible trade in slaves, I could not have written the book."
Drawn from accounts of a mutiny aboard a Liverpool-based ship, "Sacred Hunger" relentlessly illustrates the history of the commerce in human beings, a business where money trumps freedom.
One of the gratifying aspects of interviewing authors for a living was the opportunity to meet such intelligent and sympathetic people such as Unsworth, the son of an English coal miner and graduate of a middle-class university who became a self-taught fiction writer and historian. Our meeting four years ago at Pitt, where he joined historian Marcus Rediker for a symposium on the slave trade, confirmed for me, at least, that Unsworth was that rare combination of integrity, seriousness and fine writing.
He launched his novelist career in 1967 with "The Greeks Have a Word for It" and concluded it with last year's "The Quality of Mercy," a sequel to "Sacred Hunger." Among his more than 20 books are such outstanding novels as "The Ruby in Her Navel," set in Norman-conquered Sicily; "Morality Play" in medieval England; "Losing Nelson," about the famous British naval hero; and "Land of Marvels," concerning the struggle for oil in 1914 Mesopotamia.