LOSING NELSON by Barry Unsworth
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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.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1999
ISBN: 0393321177
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday