If brief enthusiasms can make independent booksellers seem fickle, some redemption may be found in our loyalty to individual authors. We often have longer memories than both chain retailers and publishers, and our customers’ support depends on our taste as much as on our efficiency. Hot news quickly cools, but the favourites abide: Shirley Hazzard, Javier Marías, Robert Edric, William Maxwell, Penelope Fitzgerald. My colleagues, who prefer other writers, gracefully ignore my shop-floor eulogies which they have heard a thousand times.
Then there is the case of Barry Unsworth. Any book of his you buy now flaunts the shameless misrepresentation ‘Winner of the Booker Prize’, as if he has won it many times – except that you probably won’t find much of his backlist in shops, and even Sacred Hunger has not stayed in the public mind like some other winners, such as The English Patient, with which it tied for the prize in 1992. The ploy, however, of trying to make prospective buyers think that a book has won the Booker Prize carries the subliminal message that a book is only worth buying if it has won that notorious lottery. This is a shame. Sacred Hunger is a big, splendid, compelling historical novel about the slave trade, but it is very different from Unsworth’s other novels, which are excellent and have much in common with one another. Above all, his work exhibits a profound exploration of Mediterranean culture. The main character in The Stone Virgin is engaged on the restoration of a late Gothic sculpture in Venice. Brilliantly evoked, the city is a natural backdrop for the themes of decay and corruption, art and empire – and romance – that drive the book. Italy is also the setting for After Hannibal and Losing Nelson, while The Ruby in Her Navel takes place in medieval Sicily, where intruding Normans converged with ousted Byzantines.
My own favourite is Pascali’s Island
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