"Sugar and Rum" is my first encounter with Barry Unsworth's work, and it's a nice surprise. It is tightly plotted and features a wide assortment of interesting and eccentric characters, but it is also somewhat dissonant and disturbing in the way it makes a crude, if well-meaning, statement about economic reform.
Clive Benson is a 63-year-old author who has had a semi-successful career writing historical novels, but now, stuck with writer's block while working on a novel about the Liverpool slave trade, makes money as a literary consultant for a group of aspiring writers he calls the "Fictioneers." His students include a grammatically challenged science fiction enthusiast, a rebellious biker girl writing lurid poetry, a quiet young man struggling to find a starting point for his autobiographical novel, and a woman writing a campy period romance.
Always looking for symbols in mundane events, Benson collects tabloid photographs and articles and wanders the streets of Liverpool striking up conversations with strangers. One person he comes across is an old World War II army buddy named Thompson, now a homeless bum, who sparks in Benson a memory of a personal tragedy in his past. Seeking answers about this incident, Benson tracks down his former platoon commander, Slater, who now is a wealthy financier married to a movie star and living in a country manor that happens to have been built by one of the Liverpool slave traders. Benson finds that Slater is essentially the same kind of domineering windbag he was in the army, nationalistically proud of England's history and aristocracy.
One of Benson's friends, a liberal, anti-Thatcher, activistic history professor named Alma Corrigan, inspires him to launch a juvenile revenge scheme against Slater, involving some of his impressionable and impulsive Fictioneers. The absurd denouement, however, is unsatisfactory for a novel like this that is attempting to make a serious political statement. The result of Benson's threadbare scheme does not change anything about British society or politics, does not strengthen the statement about economic reform that was already made clear throughout the novel, and is not even funny if that was its intention. The novel does not make it clear why a man of Benson's age, maturity, and relatively mild disposition would want to put such a plan into action; maybe his problem is that he can't tell where fiction stops and reality begins.
Despite the incongruous ending, I must admit that reading this novel was a pleasure because of Unsworth's richly descriptive prose and characterization. Unsworth has a keen sense for creating extraordinary characters with comical but believable idiosyncracies. The chauffeur who claims to be John Lennon's former bodyguard, the romance writer who indignantly refuses to have her stuffy characters impaled on spikes, the Verdi-loving Mrs. Slater who is in a constant alchoholic haze, and Rathbone the performing hypnotist are some of the best characters a reader could hope for. If only the book had an ending worthy of them...