Obituary: Barry Unsworth, novelist
Born: 10 August, 1930, in County Durham. Died: 5 June, 2012, in Umbria, aged 81.
The historical novelist Barry Unsworth, who co-won the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger, gained a reputation for writing novels of style with an unremitting accuracy. Sacred Hunger was a grisly account of the 18th-century slave trade and showed that Unsworth was a writer of stark originality whose dense and colourful prose brought back to vibrant life past civilisations.
Unsworth had the ability to write about great events during turbulent eras in history, such as the Trojan War, medieval Europe and the Napoleonic age. All were recreated with an informed and enlightened skill. He wrote 17 novels – most recently The Quality of Mercy, which has been shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.
Two other of Unsworth’s books, Pascali’s Island and Morality Play, were shortlisted for the Booker in 1980 and 1995.
Barry Foster Unsworth was born in Wingate, County Durham, the son of a miner. He attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and then read English at Manchester University, graduating in 1951.
After national service in the Royal Corps of Signals he spent some years on the continent, lecturing at the University of Athens and in Istanbul. During these years, Unsworth became a keen student of history and started to write, firstly short stories, then historical novels.
His first novel, The Partnership, set in Cornwall, was published in 1966. It is centred on the rift within a family whose characters Unsworth painted with uncompromising cunning and accuracy.
That was followed by The Hide, which featured a Peeping Tom, and was his first book to demonstrate his fascination with personal obsessions and family destruction.
In the early 1970s Unsworth became involved in the study of the past. His experience of living in Greece and Turkey had affected him greatly and he became fascinated by the traditions, teachings and social conditions of the past.
More significantly, he studied the make-up of society and the similarities with past and contemporary societies. “The fascination for writing historical novels is that things were different but they were the same,” he told the BBC in an interview.
There followed a string of deeply researched novels that were not only historically accurate but allowed the story to unfold with an unerring sense of drama. These included Stone Virgin (1986) set in Renaissance Venice; Losing Nelson (1999), about a modern-day writer obsessed with the admiral; The Song of Kings (2003), which craftily retells the story of the Trojan War, and Land of Marvels (2009), which related some unhappy intrigues in Mesopotamia on the eve of the First World War.
Most recently, The Quality of Mercy, to be published this autumn, continues the narrative of Sacred Hunger.
It is Sacred Hunger for which Unsworth is, rightly, best known. The novel is a stunning exploration of power and greed, telling of a family that entered the slave trade to make huge profits. The venture comes to grief on the high seas and the sailors and slaves join together to create a habitat in Florida.
His books often reflect his own strong socialist views and critics often noted that his novels about the past were veiled allegories of contemporary events. When the veil is removed, it was suggested, Unsworth had, in fact, depicted a serious indictment of the Thatcher era.
He said in an interview in 1992: “You couldn’t really live through the Eighties without feeling how crass and distasteful some of the economic doctrines were.
“The slave trade is a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences.”
The book was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1992, along with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
His first historical novel, Pascali’s Island, was made into a film starring Charles Dance, Helen Mirren and Ben Kingsley, while Morality Play was renamed The Reckoning, starring Willem Dafoe.
Unsworth was often a guest at various universities as a lecturer or leading writing seminars. He was a writer in residence at Liverpool University and at Lund University, Sweden. He was a teacher at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop,
In many of his novels, Unsworth recounts tales of deepest cruelty and yet, through his mastery for detail and a sly wit, he ensures that all his books are immensely readable, bright and involving. He propels the narrative along with an all-consuming passion and they are now recognised internationally.
Unsworth had lived for some years in Perugia and was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
His first marriage, to Valerie Moor, was dissolved. He is survived by his second wife, Aira, and three daughters from his first marriage.
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