Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth bigraphy, stories - English novelist

Barry Unsworth : biography

August 10, 1930 – June 5, 2012

Barry Unsworth FRSL (10 AugustSome sources say 8 August 19304 June 2012Fox, Margalit (June 7, 2012) The New York Times, retrieved June 8, 2012) was a British writer known for his historical fiction. He published 17 novels, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, winning once for the 1992 novel Sacred Hunger.

Awards and honours

  • 1973 Heinemann Award, Mooncranker’s GiftObituary: Barry Unsworth, The Times, London, 9 June 2012, page 81
  • 1980 Booker Prize, shortlist, Pascali’s Island
  • 1992 Booker Prize, co-winner, Sacred Hunger
  • 1995 Booker Prize, shortlist, Morality Play
  • 2006 Booker Prize, longlist, The Ruby in Her Navel
  • 2012 Walter Scott Prize, shortlist, The Quality of Mercy


Unsworth’s first novel, The Partnership, was published in 1966 when he was 36. "…in my earlier novels, especially the two written in the early ’70s, The Hide and Mooncranker’s Gift, there was a baroque quality in the style, a density. The mood was grim, but the language was more figurative and more high-spirited. There was more delight in it, more self-indulgence, too. Among my earliest influences as a writer were the American novelists of the deep south, especially Eudora Welty, and some of that elated, grotesque comedy stayed with me." Mooncranker’s Gift (1973) won the Heinemann Award). Other novels included Stone Virgin (1985), and Losing Nelson (1999). In addition to Eudora Welty, he counted William Faulkner and Carson McCullers as his major influences.

Unsworth did not start to write historical fiction until his sixth novel, Pascali’s Island (1980), the first of his novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Pascali’s Island is set on an unnamed Aegean island during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Reflecting on this shift, Unsworth explained: "Nowadays I go to Britain relatively rarely and for short periods; in effect, I have become an expatriate. The result has been a certain loss of interest in British life and society and a very definite loss of confidence in my ability to register the contemporary scene there – the kind of things people say, the styles of dress, the politics etc.– with sufficient subtlety and accuracy. So I have turned to the past. The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter. One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition – then and now – which transcend the particular period and become timeless." A film version directed by James Dearden, starring Charles Dance, Helen Mirren, and Ben Kingsley, as the title character, was released in 1988.

Morality Play, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995, is a murder mystery set in 14th-century England about a traveling troupe of players that put on Bible plays. It was adapted as a film, The Reckoning (2003), starring Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe.

Sacred Hunger (1992) centres on the Atlantic slave trade that moves from Liverpool to West Africa, Florida and the West Indies. It was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1992, along with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. It is generally considered his masterpiece. The story is set in the mid-18th century and centers around the Snow, a Liverpool merchant slave ship employed in the triangular trade, a central trade route in the Atlantic slave trade. The two main characters are cousins Erasmus Kemp, son of a wealthy merchant from Lancashire, and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist who goes on the voyage. The novel’s central theme is greed, with the subject of slavery being a primary medium for exploring how selfish desire for profit can result in evil and barbarism. The "sacred hunger" of the title refers to the profit motive. The story line has a very extensive cast of characters, some featuring in only one scene, others continually developed throughout the story, but most described in intricate detail. The narrative interweaves elements of appalling cruelty and horror with extended comedic interludes, and employs frequent period expressions. A sequel, The Quality of Mercy, was published in 2011, it was his last book.