British novelist Barry Unsworth has died in Italy aged 81. I’ve read several of his novels, the most outstanding being his story of the 18th-century slave trade in Liverpool, Sacred Hunger, for which he was awarded the Booker prize in 1989. The Guardian obituary today begins:
Barry Unsworth .. was a writer in the tradition of William Golding and Joseph Conrad. Pre-eminent among novelists of empires in decay, his range spanned the Ottoman, the Venetian and the British hegemony, and the middle ages to the present day. His novel Sacred Hunger, about the 18th-century slave trade, was the joint winner of the Booker prize in 1992 and, in the opinion of many, should have won it outright.
Unsworth was born in the mining village of Wingate, Co Durham. His father had started his working life at the age of 13 as a miner, but later found a job with an insurance company in Stockton-on-Tees. At primary school, Barry revealed a gift for composition and became accustomed to seeing his stories pinned to the wall with gold stars on them. “I saw,” he said, “that the way forward was to get as many gold stars as possible.” When he left Stockton grammar school, he announced that he wanted to be a journalist. “I couldn’t possibly say I wanted to be a writer, not in Stockton-on-Tees at that time.”
In 1988, suffering from writer’s block (an experience that informed his novel Sugar and Rum), Unsworth accepted a six-month British Council appointment as writer-in-residence at Lund University in Sweden, returning with Sacred Hunger, the story of the mutinous crew of the slave ship Liverpool Merchant, which went on to share the Booker prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.
In a statement on the British Council website, Unsworth wrote:
As a child I was beset by the sense of secret pathways, tracks leading away from, running alongside, occasionally touching, the ones everyone knew about. They could be anywhere, wherever there was cover. There were privileged people who could step into them at will because they knew the access points. Or you could somehow blunder upon them. This sense of hidden alternatives was always like possessing a secret and it always involved a sort of conflict with the familiar world. All my fiction starts from a feeling of unique perception, the pressure of a secret, a story that needs to be told. Before it can be properly told one needs to explore the ways, find embodiments in character, deal with the weather and the look of things, get it right. But whatever the ramifications, whatever turns the path takes, the beginning is always there, in a particular moment, a particular point of access.
In an interview with The Independent about Sacred Hunger in 1992, Unsworth commented:
As I wrote I began to see more strongly that there were inescapable analogies. You couldn’t really live through the ’80s 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.