This is the twelfth book by Barry Unsworth I’ve read, though it’s actually his first novel. Published in 1966 and (what a great year that was!) the story centres on two men, Foley and Moss, who have spent the last three years in Cornwall, sharing a house and working together to build up a cottage industry making plaster pixies for the summer tourist trade.
It’s a slightly surreal plot premise. It also shows its age. In the first chapter there is a quasi-argument between the protangonists about the morals of Barbara, a friend of Foley’s, who entertains “men visitors…from far places wearing corduroy caps and silk cravats”. So she’s a slag and she’s not choosy. “‘I’ve heard that she is insatiable,’ Moss said.” That would sound like a cliche except Moss says it “as though it were something like leprosy.” Poor Barbara – she needs a government health warning slapped on her!
And then there’s Gwendoline, the other woman in the story. Foley tries to seduce her. “He was quite sure she was still a virgin, despite her aspect of fecundity.” Later, after another man, Bernard, has appeared on the scene, Gwendoline tells Foley that she and Bernard have been “together” for a year. “..he knew fom her dignified silence what she must mean.” Ooh, er, vicar!
But if the narrative touching on women’s sexuality is of an era, that on men’s sexuality is the same – and more so. Talking about Max, the (only?) gay man in the village, Foley reminds Moss that “‘it’s against the law, you know.”‘ It’s sobering thought – homosexuality was a criminal offence in England and Wales until 1967 – as well as a warning to ‘latent queers’ like Moss.
But the book is more than a period piece. It is essentially a story of unrequited love, transcending time and gender. The black-faced ram Moss finds stuck fast up to the neck in mud, dead, provides a disturbing, concrete symbol of Moss’s predicament, being starved of love as the ram had been slowly, fatally starved of food. There are the plaster, gilded cherubs, Foley’s own special project, on which he lavishs the “loving absorption” he withholds from other people, including his business partner, Moss. And then, of course, there are the pixies, creatures “made in the human image” who are, Foley thinks, “an outrage against the whole human race”.
The minor characters in the book add colour and an element of comedy into the mix. We are presented with a range of grotesques that would give any pixie a run for its money: Grahem, the misanthropist painter, who hates his neighbours so much that he’s spent years painting their likenesses into a Doomsday picture; Bailey, the would-be businessman, with his maxims and sayings, who commissions Foley to make skulls for his bar; and street-wise, acerbic Barbara, who perceives far more than Foley himself about what’s enfolding under his own roof.
If you’re an Unsworth fan, as I am, then stick with it through the first few chapters, allow yourself to be drawn into the story, and you’ll find it’s a good read, albeit grimmer than his later work. The ending is forseeable but the quality of the writing means it’s no less satisfactory for all that. If you’re new to Unsworth, though, then this book isn’t the place to start: try Morality Play (the first of his I read – I was captivated), or Losing Nelson (anothor personal favourite), or any of his historical novels (Pascali’s island onwards). Sacred Hunger is brilliant too – it made him the joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1992 – but its length (630 pages) might be daunting for a newcomer to his work.
Rating: ** (worth trying)