June 12, 2012
Barry Unsworth and Ray Bradbury died last week, the one a highly praised, award-winning writer of historical novels and the other a renowned sci-fi writer. I keep scanning the bookshelf holding my college English lit paperbacks, searching for a science fiction anthology I’m sure contains Bradbury’s work, but I don’t see the memorable psychedelic book cover. It’s possible I gave the book away because I concluded, after reading it those many years ago, that science fiction and I aren’t compatible. The genre doesn’t generate impulse buys, late-night reading and that breathless desire to stack the reading table, much as I’ve tried. This is a familiar refrain I sing here. But what about Barry Unsworth?
News of his death in Perugia, Italy on June 5 drove me to find out about his work, 17 novels, which are less familiar to me than Bradbury’s oeuvre. Of the 17, the novel that rose to the top in my search, with consistent praise from critics and readers alike, was Sacred Hunger, a novel frequently described as “the book that shared the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.” Most know Michael Ondaatje’s best-seller that was made into an Oscar award-winning movie, but not Unsworth’s novel, a 630-page thematic focus on greed and man’s cruelty to man, as it tells the story of the 18th century British slave trade.
If that kind of plotline sounds too heavy for summer reading, I’m thinking the engrossing “masterpiece” aspect of the book puts it in the running for a seasonal choice. Because isn’t that what some of us want? Not the lightness of a beach read, or the titillation of a gray-shaded sex boiler, rather an epic escape into another time and place that soar us into the wee hours of these long summer nights, a literate kidnapping of our imagination and intellect. The Guardian’s obituary says of Unsworth’s work, “All his stories start with the pressure of a secret that needs to be told. All leave the reader haunted.” Well, that got me. Sacred Hunger is now on the summer reading table.
Here’s a summary of its plot, given by the Man Booker Prize in their online archive:
“A blasphemous outcast, Matthew Paris boards the ‘Liverpool Merchant’ as ship’s doctor as it embarks on a mercantile voyage in the slave trade. An illness breaks out among the slaves and crew between Guinea and the West Indies, and slaves are ordered to be tossed overboard in order to claim the insurance. Illness gives rise to mutiny, the captain is killed, and, with Paris as one of the leaders, the ship sails for Florida to establish an egalitarian, interracial society. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the loss of the ship has financially ruined its owner, Kemp, who hangs himself. Twelve years later, upon hearing rumours of a utopian community of blacks and whites in Florida, Kemp’s son sets out for revenge.”
Author Ethan Canin selected Sacred Hunger in his 2008 NPR “You Must Read This” selection and said, “I’ve rarely heard anyone who has read it call it anything less than magnificent.” And that’s what I, too, kept finding — countless statements describing the novel as a masterpiece, not only for its plot and character development, but also for its overarching message about profit, greed and inhumanity. Herbert Mitgang wrote about Sacred Hunger in the New York Times, December 1992: “In this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.”
Barry Unsworth’s novels Pascali’s Island (published in the United States as The Idol Hunter) and Morality Play were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and 1995. His most recent novel, published earlier this year, is Quality of Mercy. It continues the story of Sacred Hunger. In 2011, Unsworth told the BBC, “The fascination for writing historical novels is that things were different but they were the same. You say something that is true of the 18th Century, but at the same time you are saying something that is true of our time as well.”
April 26, 2010
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation recently announced the 2010 fellows in categories for creative arts, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Thirteen fiction writers are among the 180 recipients. They’ll now be able to mention in the bios on their book dust jackets that they’re a Guggenheim Fellow. But what does that tell their readers?
The Foundation’s website defines recipients as advanced professionals, which means, for writers, having “a significant record of publication.” That says to me these authors already have a backlist of good books. But it’s not just past accomplishment that snags these prestigious grants. Exceptional promise for future work is also part of the mix. That means we should take note when we see new books published by these authors.
Below are the 13 and their recent works of fiction. If I found an author’s website, I listed that. Oherwise, I listed the publisher’s web page about the author. From my reading past, I can safely shout out about Lorraine Adams, Ethan Canin, Anthony Doerr, Colum McCann and Nell Freudenberger. Christine Schutt’s Florida is a book I regretfully missed when it first came out; it was a National Book Award finalist in 2004. I’ve purchased Tinkers and Driftless.
Lorraine Adams, The Room and the Chair
Ethan Canin, America, America
Anthony Doerr, Memory Wall
(Memory Wall is a story collection to be published July 2010.)
Nell Freudenberger, The Dissident
Paul Harding, Tinkers
(Winner of this year’s Pulitzer in fiction)
Victor LaValle, Big Machine
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
Philipp Meyer, American Rust
Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
David Rhodes, Driftless
Christine Schutt, All Souls
Salvatore Scibona, The End
Monique Truong, Bitter in the Mouth
(Bitter in the Mouth is to be published August 2010.)