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Unsworth, Barry

set play century time

(British, 1930– )

Unsworth was born into a mining family in Durham, and travelled and taught English as a foreign language before and during his early writing career. He currently lives in Italy. His novels are set in a wide range of historical and geographical locations, although they always grapple with current issues and ideas. He chooses the past because, he says, ‘You can shed a lot of contemporary clutter’. Begin with his 1992 joint-Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger, about the mid-eighteenth-century slave trade. The Liverpool Merchant collects slaves from Africa but, during a crossing beset by sickness and bad weather, the captain decides to jettison his living cargo to claim the insurance money. Twelve years later the ship (assumed lost) is discovered in wilderness Florida, where runaways—both black and white—live in a utopia ‘where no man is chief’. Morality Play (1995) is set in the north of England in the fourteenth century, and tells of a group of travelling players who depart from their time-honoured roles and begin to incorporate story details from a recent real-life murder, hunting down the truth by play-acting it. Richly and poetically written, this vividly conjures the Middle Ages, in a plot which works at many levels, from suspenseful whodunit to masterly exploration of illusion and reality. Stone Virgin (1985) is set in Venice, and shifts in time from the 1970s (and the conservationist working on the statue of the title) to the 1400s, when the original sculptor was at work.

William Golding, Thomas Keneally, Joseph Conrad  JR

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