Mistaken or Doomed

Thomas Jones

  • Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth
    Hutchinson, 287 pp, £18.99, January 2009, ISBN 978 0 09 192617 5

Over the course of his 43-year, 16-novel writing career, Barry Unsworth has demonstrated a considerable knack for producing historical novels of timely pertinence. In 1992, for example, the year that six days of riots erupted in Los Angeles after four white police officers were acquitted of using excessive force in the act of arresting Rodney King, a black man, Unsworth won half the Booker Prize – the other half went to Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient – for a novel that in its unsparing portrayal of life aboard an 18th-century slave ship looked back to the colonial and commercial origins of racial tensions in North America. With its description of a multicultural utopian settlement established in Florida by the survivors from among the ship’s cargo and mutinous crew, Sacred Hunger also tentatively explored how things might have begun to turn out differently. In 1995, the year that Rosemary West was jailed and Myra Hindley theoretically became eligible for parole, Unsworth was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Morality Play, a medieval take on the media circus that surrounds a woman accused of child-murder.

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