The central situation--an aging, slightly dotty, blocked novelist going to seed amid the blight of late-Thatcher Liverpool--sounds irredeemably depressing, and yet by some narrative miracle Barry Unsworth
makes Sugar and Rum
a work of spirited playfulness, human sympathy, and quicksilver imagination. Clive Benson, hopelessly stuck in his historical novel about the horrors of Liverpool's slave trade, has taken to offering private instruction to a ragtag group of would-be writers he calls "the fictioneers." Prowling the shattered city streets in search of "signs, portents, auguries," Benson witnesses a suicide--a flashing leap from a high building--and soon after runs across an old wreck of an army buddy from World War II.
These encounters precipitate a crisis: Benson becomes obsessed with a traumatic wartime episode in which he inadvertently led a friend to his death, and then, stumbling from fantasy to action, he hatches a scheme to exact revenge on the arrogant second lieutenant they served under. As engrossingly bizarre as it is, plot in Sugar and Rum is secondary to narrative warp and woof--metaphor, allusion, surreal juxtapositions. A hypnotist neighbor appears to offer advice on getting rid of the owl that has invaded Benson's flat; a magazine featuring Dali and Verdi leads to the detested second lieutenant; the terrible legacy of the slave trade shadows every aspect of contemporary Liverpool.
Sugar and Rum is at once an inflamed political novel of class and race warfare, a satire of current social malaise, a portrait of the artist as a damaged but still plucky old man, a meditation on the meanings of performance, and a ripping good read. It is also an amusingly distorted autobiography, since Unsworth in real life succeeded in writing the slave-trade novel that defeats his alter ego--Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize. It's quite a juggling act, but Unsworth proves himself more than equal to the task. --David Laskin
From Publishers Weekly
Signs of the powerful writing Unsworth later exhibited in his Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger distinguish this otherwise unfocused novel published in England in 1988 and released here for the first time. On one level a stinging diatribe against the "inhuman system" of Thatcher's conservative policies, the narrative also deals with such themes as unresolved guilt, Britain's lucrative participation in the slave trade, and the tools of a writer's craft. Suffering from writer's block, 63-year-old historical novelist Clive Benson is unable to proceed with a new work set in Liverpool during the late 1700s, the heyday of the Atlantic slave traders. Alone since his wife left him, Benson has sunk deep into depression and alcoholism; he is so emotionally dislocated that he talks compulsively to strangers on park benches. To make ends meet, he has set himself up as a literary consultant, but his clients are largely untalented and impervious to advice. Examples of their execrable jottings are the one light note in a text otherwise dominated by dark images: a suicide in the book's opening pages, Benson's memories of the Anzio campaign during WW II, and the death of his best friend in ambush, an event for which Benson holds himself responsible. When he runs across another veteran of that conflict, who in turn leads him to the erstwhile platoon commander, now a fat cat enjoying a rich lifestyle, a series of coincidences and violent acts sweep the novel to a fiery if not entirely credible conclusion. Though some of the scenes in Liverpool's grim slums have a cinematic urgency, analogies between the 18th-century slavers and contemporary Thatcherite opportunists are strained. The story ends on an ironic note: Benson's emancipation from anomie is accomplished with the aid of some of his writing clientsAwhom he calls "fictioneers"Aan alliance of creative energy and social action that Unsworth seems to be calling for.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.