Books by Barry Unsworth

BARRY UNSWORTH won the Booker Prize for his novel Sacred Hunger, and is also the author of The Songs of the Kings, Losing Nelson, After Hannibal, and the international bestseller Morality Play. He lives in Italy.


THE QUALITY OF MERCY by Barry Unsworth
Released: Jan. 10, 2012

"A sturdy historical novel with fewer pages than Sacred Hunger but no less nuance."
Unsworth returns to themes of greed and human rights in this potent sequel to his 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger. Read full book review >
LAND OF MARVELS by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 6, 2009

"A transfixing melodrama alive with crackling suspense, sharply drawn characters, intense historical relevance and ideas in action. Absorbing and irresistible."
The Booker Prize-winning British author's latest novel is a tale of archaeological exploration and global political cross-purposes, set in the former Mesopotamia (now Iraq) in the immediate pre-war year of 1914. Read full book review >
THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 17, 2006

"Unsworth's luscious history is ripe territory for a dialogue on the ever-present struggle against intolerance, a seemingly inevitable human frailty."
A richly imagined novel of the Middle Ages, filled with questions of race, God and fidelity, from the Booker Prize-winning Unsworth (The Song of the Kings, 2003, etc.). Read full book review >
THE SONG OF THE KINGS by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: March 18, 2003

"Nevertheless, a distinguished companion to such glorious excursions into the past as Sacred Hunger (1992) and Losing Nelson (1999)."
The world of Homeric epic and Euripidean tragedy is brought sharply to life in British master Unsworth's gorgeously detailed, astute 14th novel. Read full book review >
THE PARTNERSHIP by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Aug. 1, 2001

"Rich with lush language, but perilously lacking plot or tension."
A first US appearance for this 1966 debut novel by Booker Prize-winning Unsworth (Sacred Hunger, 1992), notable primarily for what it promises. Read full book review >
LOSING NELSON by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 19, 1999

In a novel of singular complexity, Unsworth (Sugar and Rum, p. 481, etc.) sheds remarkable light on the nature of obsession, as a daft but supremely knowledgeable biographer of British naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson fights desperately against the evidence to rescue his subject from a distinctly unheroic deed. Day by day, history is reenacted in the London basement of Charles Cleasby, as he celebrates all of Nelson's victories at sea on a glass-topped table filled with ships handcrafted to scale. Living alone and well-off after his father's death, Charles has no impediment to the lifelong pursuit of this celebration and its accompanying biography, save one: He can—t explain to his satisfaction what happened in Naples on June 26, 1799, when his bright angel Horatio apparently defied a treaty and, using base deceit, sent hundreds of antimonarchist opponents, the flower of Naples society, to their deaths at the hands of their vengeful former ruler. Complicating matters for Charles is the fact that the secretary he's engaged to help with his book, a no-nonsense, kindhearted woman he nicknames Miss Lily and for whom he begins to have some feeling, is highly critical of Horatio's vanity and blood lust. After months of work on the manuscript—and an outing together with her teenage son to see Horatio's flagship" Miss Lily reluctantly leaves for the summer on another job. The seeds of doubt she's sown in Charles's mind so tarnish his view of the man he's come to consider his shining twin, his other, that he feels compelled to go to Naples in search of evidence that will redeem them both. What he finds instead unites him with his hero in a manner that brooks no return. Psychodrama and historical suspense align to extraordinary effect here, entwining the two in a denouement both stunning and unspeakably sad. (Book-of-the-Month Club) Read full book review >
SUGAR AND RUM by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 1, 1999

A 1990 novel by Unsworth (After Hannibal, 1997, etc.) finally surfaces here, adding a distinctively quirky note to his Booker-winning Sacred Hunger (1992): here, an obsessive novelist overcomes writer's block by resolving the guilt he's carried since his closest friend died beside him in Italy during WWII. Benson is so blocked that he's taken to chatting up the wrecks of humanity he finds on his walks through the streets of Liverpool, where he's supposedly writing a tale of that city's prosperous days in the 18th-century slave trade but is actually frittering away his time as a manuscript consultant. He seeks portents of change everywhere, and witnessing a man jump to his death becomes a potent symbol for him—though of just what he can't be sure. His self-absorbed take on it, however, succeeds in alienating Alma, a woman he's just met in a pub who he believes could be his Muse. The encounter with Alma proves to be a portent of even more significant changes in Benson's life. When he chances on a former comrade-in-arms singing for coins in the street and follows the wheezing derelict home, sharing a whisky with him conjures up a mystery about Benson's wartime buddy, Walters, for whose death the writer had always blamed himself. A search for the mystery's solution takes Benson to the sumptuous estate of his old platoon leader, Slater, now a semiretired, archconservative financier. The truth revealed there galvanizes Benson to take charge of his life again by making use of his wartime skills to deflate Slater's pompous visions of knighthood. This certainly goes to show that what lurks in the head of a frustrated writer isn't pretty, but the quiet desperation and its surprising turns seem more a matter of skillful artifice than sublime storytelling. Read full book review >
AFTER HANNIBAL by Barry Unsworth
MYSTERY THRILLER
Released: March 1, 1997

Following his grim, medieval Morality Play (1995) with a more delicate modern work, Unsworth makes the most both of his Booker Prizewinning talents and the Italian countryside he now calls home to offer an homage to Umbria and a skewering of the motley multinational crew who've taken up residence there. The Chapmans are British; the Greens, American; Blemish, British; Ritter, German; Arturo and Fabio, from the south; Monti, from the north; while Mancini, like God, has no place of origin- -leaving the three Checchetti as the only ones with roots in the richer ocher of the Umbrian soil. But the locals are a conniving lot who approach the Chapmans to ask for reparation when the Chapmans' garden wall collapses into the road shared by all, blaming their expatriate neighbors' moving-truck traffic for the damage. As Cecilia and Harold consult their attorney, Mancini, the elderly Greens, who need to renovate their old farmhouse, are being hoodwinked by the lugubrious Blemish, who intends to fleece them for all they're worth as their ``project manager.'' Ritter, meanwhile, his interpreting career ending in a breakdown, is meticulously clearing his bramble-choked land, work that looses a flood of childhood memories of Rome, where his father was a Nazi intelligence officer in WW II. Fabio is about to be duped into turning over to Arturo the deed to the house he and Arturo have shared for 15 years, only because Arturo is now eager to be gone, while Monti, a professor of Italian history from Turin, loses himself in the regional intrigues spanning blood-soaked centuries after his wife leaves him. For one and all, moments of crisis prove cathartic, and more often than not, the ageless, serenely just Mancini has a hand in guiding the outcome. As if for just a change of pace, Unsworth offers this gentle sendup of the ongoing drive to colonize pastoral Italy. But the exquisitely evoked Umbrian landscape that serves as backdrop for these petty squabbles and personal dramas is the real draw here. Read full book review >
THE HIDE by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: June 1, 1996

An earlier work by Booker-winning Unsworth (Savage Hunger, 1992; Morality Play, 1995, etc.), now making its first appearance in the US: a brooding, quietly savage little tale of eccentricity, manipulation, and malevolence on an English country estate. Simon lives with his sister Audrey and her ward/maid Marion in a rambling house surrounded by unkempt grounds, all gone to seed since Audrey's husband's death. It suits antisocial Simon perfectly, since he can use the tangled overgrowth to mask his secret passions: spying on a well-endowed neighbor when she unwittingly exposes herself, and building tunnels complete with secret chambers where he can retire for moments of delicious privacy. His bliss is disrupted, however, when Audrey hires a young gardener, Josh, to tidy up. Josh has his own story to tell: Formerly a stall attendant at a local amusement park, his simple, trusting manner has brought him under the influence of a sharp- tongued malcontent, Mortimer, with whom he shares news of his new employers. Marion and Audrey are both giddy in Josh's virile presence, Audrey thinking herself his patron when she finds that he has a real talent for woodcarving. But Josh has eyes only for teenager Marion. Their mutual attraction results in clutches and fumblings about the grounds, and Audrey is devastated, but a sharper blow comes to her when the drama society, of which she is an ardent member and primary supporter, dumps her. Meanwhile, Simon has witnessed all from his various ``hides'' among the bushes, using his gathered information to further his own ends. But when Josh allows Mortimer and another man to ``share'' Marion, against her will, even the voracious voyeur has had his fill. Ranging from scenes of farce to scenes of chilling cruelty, what emerges is a superbly nuanced view of human frailty beset by evil and adversity—a strong addition to the Unsworth oeuvre already available here. Read full book review >
MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Nov. 1, 1995

Bookerwinning Unsworth (Sacred Hunger, 1992) again brings his formidable talent to bear on English history, here in a brooding 14thcentury tale of itinerant players who are inexorably drawn into the dark maze of secrets behind a murderto their own peril. When in May hawthorn flowers bloomed under 23-year-old Nicholas Barber's window, he abandoned his work as a priest out of wanderlust. Six months later, hungry, cold, and fearing pursuit as an adulterer, he chances upon a ragtag troupe of actors just as one of them dies of afflictionand persuades them to let him join as a replacement. They enter an unknown town in search of hallowed ground for their dead comrade, there hearing details of a local boy's murder and the hasty conviction of a deaf-mute woman. Sensing a travesty of justice as well as a potential goldmine, their leaderthe savvy, intense Martinconvinces the others to reenact the deed. When their first performance ends by pointing a finger at the local Lord's confessor, a Benedictine monk, Martin is unsatisfied, so they gather more evidence that turns the next show into an indictment of the Lord himselfalthough the play is interrupted, once when the monk's corpse is taken past and again when the cast is taken under guard to the castle for a private show. There, the play's meaning shifts once more, with Martin's performance directly challenging the Lord in a way that seals the troupe's doom. But a timely appeal to Nicholas to resume his priestly duties alters the course of events, enabling him to escape and seek out the King's Justice, and leaving the players to strut and fret another day. With mood and setting crisplyand chillinglyevoked, favorable comparisons to The Name of the Rose are in order, though many characters here are slender rather than fully figured, so that what could have been a truly great novel is instead only very good. (Author tour) Read full book review >
SACRED HUNGER by Barry Unsworth
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: July 22, 1992

A masterful, thoroughly engrossing tale from acclaimed historical novelist Unsworth (Pascali's Island, 1980; Stone Virgin, 1986)—about the British slave trade in the mid-18th century and a shipboard mutiny from which arose a community based on racial equality. Through the perspectives of Erasmus Kemp, son of the shipowner and an obsessive, insensitive youth; and Matthew Paris—his cousin, a doctor (and ship's physician) recently imprisoned for publishing his seditious views in favor of evolution—Unsworth contrasts imagery of a genteel life in England with an increasingly brutal, barbaric existence under the command of the maniacal Captain Thurso. As slaves are collected from traders along the African coast, the fortunes of the owner decline precipitously, with his suicide and the ruin of Erasmus's fanciful plans of empire-building and grandeur through a good marriage the result. Becalmed, the ship's human cargo begins to sicken and die, and an increasingly vexed Thurso opts to alleviate matters by throwing ailing slaves overboard—an act spurring Paris and the crew to kill him. After landing on the remote coast of Florida, ex-slaves and sailors live in freedom for 12 years—inspired by the utopian ideals of an itinerant artist picked up in Africa—until they are captured by soldiers under Erasmus, who, consumed by the same sacred hunger for wealth that made chattel of human beings, has spared no effort to hunt down the cousin whom he blames for the loss of his dream. Intense in its elaboration of two vastly different visions of destiny and cause-and-effect, more steeped in history than Charles Johnson's Middle Passage: a riveting, outstanding addition to an already impressive oeuvre. Read full book review >