Barry Unsworth | Critical Review by John Clute

This literature criticism consists of approximately 2 pages of analysis & critique of Barry Unsworth.
This section contains 531 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Clute

SOURCE: "Death in Venice," in New Statesman, Vol. 110, No. 2839, August 16, 1985, p. 28.

In the following review, Clute finds the meaning of Stone Virgin somewhat confusing but appreciates Unsworth's depiction of Venice.

Bulging like a teardrop into its poisonous lagoon, Venice boasts a geography so graspable for purposes of art that it comes as a surprise not that so many stories are set there, but so few. In its fatal intercourse with the sea, the city models an inherent tendency of the Western mind to see the world as a series of dire consequences: the old familiar marriages of love and death, art and decay, power and corruption, sex and drowning.

Stone Virgin, a tale of love and death, art and decay, power and corruption and sex and drowning, has been set by Barry Unsworth, who is a deft and canny teller of tales, in the best place possible to add depth and a sense of the sorrows of time to a story that might otherwise seem marginally overblown. Conservation expert Simon Raikes has been called to Venice to restore a 15th-century Madonna, almost instantly to be haunted by the intricate circumambient city whose every vista seems to embody and to intensify his veil-rending obsessions. For he is an epileptic and, succumbing to seizures in the Virgin's presence, catches glimpses of an epiphanic Venetian past: bodies in clean rapture; hints of events that must have occurred when the sculpture was whole; a light as golden as childhood.

While this is going on, Unsworth omnisciently weaves into the main text two smaller narratives, the story of the artist who carved the Virgin in 1432 and of an 18th-century rake who seduced a woman in her shadow. Raikes's visions are of events from these two narratives. It seems that we are in the world—it is not an ignoble one—of the Venetian tales of Vernon Lee and Daphne du Maurier, for Raikes's visions can only be supernaturally derived. It is precisely at this point, however, that Stone Virgin slips into a slightly tedious mundanity—for Unsworth is clearly unwilling to give his novel any supernatural warrant.

The ending isn't much helped, either, by this refusal to tie the knots. Raikes falls in love with a woman whose family has been darkly involved with the Virgin throughout its history and it begins to look as though he's destined to reenact the same fatal sequence of passions that uplifted but then destroyed his predecessors. Perhaps wittingly, she has involved him in the death by the drowning of her artist husband; he is in sexual thrall to her—in thrall, also, to Venice. Unfortunately, through omniscience, we know rather more about Raikes's situation than Raikes does. Even so, because the novel has lost some of its coherence by this point, when Raikes does reconcile himself to her, goes to her isolated islet and watches her 'pale gold, glistening form emerge' like Aphrodite from the sea, we do not know if she is meant to be redeemed, redeeming or merely wet.

All the same, Unsworth's lovingly detailed Venice resonates with all her old beauty, her old desolate hints that time will not have a stop. She saves Stone Virgin.

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This section contains 531 words
(approx. 2 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Clute
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