Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by Richard Bernstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 1,020 words
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Critical Review by Richard Bernstein

SOURCE: "When Someone Zigs Instead of Zags," in New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1996, p. C16.

In the following review, Bernstein praises Unsworth's "tightly constructed murder mystery" and the evocative details with which he builds his story in Morality Play.

The first few sentences of this cunning, suspenseful medieval murder mystery by Barry Unsworth [Morality Play] are a model of literary compression and an illustration of the artfulness that adorns the novel's every page. With quick strokes of the pen, Mr. Unsworth introduces his narrator, Nicholas Barber, as a priest who in the recent past was searching for a meal but ended up in an act of adultery from which he had to make a quick escape. This, in turn, put him in the woods, rather than on the open road, and it was in the woods that he ran into a troupe of itinerant players standing mournfully over the corpse of a recently deceased fellow. And this warrants the first half of Mr. Unsworth's opening line: "It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on."

At the heart of Morality Play is the fascinating logic obeyed by the chain of circumstance, whereby tiny, ordinary events lead to unforeseen large and life-changing ones. There is a theological statement here someplace about the role of free will and accident in human affairs, about the things that are predetermined and the things that are governed by a kind of 14th-century chaos theory, the contribution of the butterfly's wing to the movements of the atmosphere. Morality Play is constructed like a lesson in butterfly-wing complexity, showing the way in which one small decision about an obscure death in the forest later comes to intrude into the life of the lord's castle in town.

Morality Play, Mr. Unsworth's first book since his Sacred Hunger won the Booker Prize in England in 1992, is not theological. It is a learned, witty, satisfying entertainment set in medieval England. (The dust jacket says the 14th century, but this is not specified in the actual text.) Mr. Unsworth's not-too-pious priest—who is nonetheless concerned about his moral bookkeeping—joins a debate among the players in the woods over how to dispose of their recently deceased fellow actor.

They are on their way to perform for a relative of the lord who owns them, and since they are in a hurry it would be expedient for them to leave the body in the woods, where Nicholas, fleeing an irate husband, first sees them. The ground being frozen, however, and the dead player's friends eager to give him a proper burial, the troupe decides to take him along, and Nicholas too. And so, the priest's hunger determines his encounter with the troupe, and the company's compassion for the dead determines everything else, including a detour into an unknown town. There, in accordance with Mr. Unsworth's first-page hint, the actors learn of another death, and the tightly constructed murder mystery unfolds.

A story like this depends on the power of the payoff at the end, of course, and here is perhaps a minor weakness in Mr. Unsworth's book. Some readers will guess the secret of the plot well before it is disclosed in the final chapters. Moreover, Mr. Unsworth gets his characters out of the scrape their actions have led them into by creating a character whose presence on the scene is a somewhat too lucky coincidence.

Still, what Morality Play loses in climactic surprise, it gains by its originality as a mystery story and the persuasive strangeness of the 14th century in which it is set. The detective story unfolds through the activities of the players. They create a play intended to depict the murder—according to the official account of it by the authorities—to local townsfolk. They do this piece of pioneering theatrical work not to solve the crime but to make money.

"It has been in my mind for years now that we can make plays from stories that happen in our lives," says one member of the troupe, foreshadowing the made-for-television movie of half a millennium later. "I believe this is the way that plays will be made in the times to come."

As they rehearse, the players begin to see flaws in the official version of events. They come to see that nothing about the crime is what it first appeared to be. The play in this sense does not catch the conscience of a king, but it allows for the exploration of reality. "The player is himself and another," Nicholas explains at the end. "When he looks at the others in the play he knows he is part of their dreaming just as they are part of his. From this come thoughts and words that outside the play he would not readily admit to his mind."

Meanwhile, Mr. Unsworth evokes a believable 14th century, a time of religious conflict, of the struggle for power between the king and the country's great lords, of pervasive barnyard smells and the Black Death, which turns out, like everything else in Mr. Unsworth's plot, to play an indispensable role. The narrator speaks convincingly as one imagines narrators to have spoken in 14th-century England, and within that framework, Mr. Unsworth creates many scenes of graphic beauty.

"The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a rawboned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold," Mr. Unsworth writes of a scene in the market. "The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow. He saw me watching him and smiled the same smile, with the wet of the snow and egg glistening on his innocent face."

Nicholas Barber seems too good a narrator to let go after just one short book. Perhaps Mr. Unsworth will write "Morality Play, Part II," in which Nicholas tells us another savory story.

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This section contains 1,020 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Richard Bernstein
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