Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SUGAR AND RUM by Barry Unsworth


by Barry Unsworth

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-31890-7
Publisher: Norton

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.