I first encountered the work of Barry Unsworth when I read Stone Virgin. I cannot now remember why I picked it up, perhaps a review, but I loved the book. Something about the mood, the tone of voice, the atmosphere, captivated me. I went back and picked up his earlier, Booker-shortlisted Pascali’s Island, and then bought most (though I have recently learned, not all) of the books he published subsequently. These include his Booker Prize winner, Sacred Hunger, The Ruby in her Navel, which I happen to think is the very best thing he wrote, and, of course, his last novel, a sort-of sequel to Sacred Hunger, The Quality of Mercy. When he died, less that a year after that novel came out (on the same day that Ray Bradbury died, as it happens, prompting one American commentator to say that Bradbury invented the future, and Unsworth invented the past), I made a promise to myself that I would read, or in most cases re-read, all of his novels and write about them. Circumstances get in the way, but as we were preparing for our holiday this year, Maureen asked me to recommend something for her to read. I thought she would really enjoy The Ruby in her Navel, and while I was taking that off the shelf for her I thought that it was maybe time to pick up one of the Unsworth’s I’ve not previously read for myself. Which is how I came to read Mooncranker’s Gift.
Mooncranker’s Gift was his fourth novel, which makes it the earliest of his books I have yet read, it was also a book or two before he turned to the historical novel, which is where he was at his absolute best. The contemporary novels of his that I have read have never quite hit the spot in the way that his historical writing did. On the other hand, Mooncranker’s Gift is largely set in Turkey, as is Pascali’s Island, and he is at least as good at evoking a foreign setting as he is at evoking an historical setting. If this suggests a certain ambivalence about the book, well that’s fair enough: there are moments of beauty and moments of dazzling writing that clearly herald his finest work; but at the same time there are clumsy moments that suggest a writer still awkwardly learning his craft.
There is also an uncertainty about what he is doing with the novel. It is, in part, a rather crude 1960s sex comedy (the novel was first published in 1973), and both the sex and the comedy require a sprightliness that is not really Unsworth’s natural style. But intimately interweaved with this is a meditative work on guilt, corruption, and the distinction between love and desire. This is something that Unsworth is considerably better at, and it is in these passages that you get a glimpse of the writer he would become. The trouble is that this thematic heart of the novel requires a much better story to bear it up.
Mooncranker is a one-time academic turned television personality who is now an alcoholic has-been making a living touring obscure parts of the world to deliver lectures on his past glories. He is a pathetic, self-obsessed figure who has practically no awareness of what is going on around him in the world. He is in Istanbul when young Farnaby encounters him. Farnaby is someone who has never quite worked out what he wants to do with his life and is currently living in Istanbul to research aspects of Turkish history in which he has no interest whatsoever. Farnaby had met Mooncranker ten years before, when Farnaby was just 13 years old and living with his aunt and uncle while his parents divorced. He had, at more or less the same time and with the same excessive enthusiasm, discovered religion and masturbation.
He had also discovered Miranda, a friend of the family who was a year or two older than he was. They partnered each other successfully at tennis, explored the grounds, and started hesitantly developing a relationship. Then Mooncranker appeared on the scene. Mooncranker also has his eye on Miranda, and for him young Farnaby is just a nuisance who is in the way. At one point Mooncranker gives Farnaby a crucifix, which turns out to be composed of sausage meat wrapped in white bandages, and which quickly begins to decay in the summer heat. I was, I confess, never entirely convinced of either the gift, which seemed particularly ludicrous, or of Mooncranker’s exact motives at this point. It is a significant moment that shapes Farnaby’s future, it is the moment that the entire plot hinges upon, and it made no sense to me.
Be that as it may, the stinking, rotting crucifix is apparently enough to destroy Farnaby’s religious belief and allow Mooncranker to walk off with Miranda.
Now, ten years later, when Farnaby reluctantly meets Mooncranker at his uncle’s behest, he finds a broken figure so far gone with alcoholism that his memory has been largely destroyed. He has no notion who Farnaby is. He clearly needs hospital treatment, and Farnaby finds himself in the unwelcome position of having to get him into a hospital and keep him company there. In one of his more cogent moments, Mooncranker begs Farnaby to go and find his secretary who has recently left him. Farnaby is minded to turn the request down, until he learns that the secretary is Miranda.
She, it turns out, has gone to a spa hotel in the mountains of Anatolia. Farnaby follows her there, and a little later Mooncranker discharges himself from hospital and travels there also. What follows, pretty much the whole of the second half of the novel, is also the best part of the book. There is some bravura comic writing when the various residents of the hotel take to the pool in the twilight and snatches of disconnected conversations twist in and around each other for page after page. There’s a remarkable sense of place as various characters explore the mountains behind the hotel with their ruins of former civilisations. There is rather crude sex comedy as the various guests try to get laid with varying degrees of success. And there is a complex examination of belief and trust that suggests something of what Unsworth would become.
It is not, I suppose, a bad book; but it is not a place to start one’s reading of Barry Unsworth.