cover image Sugar and Rum

Sugar and Rum

Barry Unsworth. W. W. Norton & Company, $13 (247pp) ISBN 978-0-393-31890-6

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 clients--whom he calls ""fictioneers""--an alliance of creative energy and social action that Unsworth seems to be calling for. (May)