Barry Unsworth, a prize-winning British novelist whose works brilliantly illuminated the moral struggles within exotic cultures in ages past, died June 5 in Umbria, Italy, where he had lived since the 1990s. He was 81.
He had lung cancer, according to British news accounts.
Mr. Unsworth was considered a master of historical fiction and was known for his keen ability to make the tribulations of ancient times relevant to contemporary readers.
In 1992, he shared Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for his novel “Sacred Hunger,” about the perilous transatlantic journey of an 18th-century slave ship. The other winner of the literary award that year was Michael Ondaatje for his novel “The English Patient.”
In a review of his most recent novel, “The Quality of Mercy,” Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles wrote earlier this year that Mr. Unsworth “entices us back into a past gloriously appointed with archival detail and moral complexity.”
Mr. Unsworth’s “sentences recall the sharp detail, moral sensitivity and ready wit of Charles Dickens,” Charles wrote. “But his sense of the lumbering, uneven gait of social progress is more sophisticated, more tempered, one might say, by history.”
Mr. Unsworth wrote 17 novels. His works explored the oil-lusting greed behind the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; investigated the blemished war career of British sailor-statesman Lord Horatio Nelson; and traced the life of intrigue of a spy in early 20th-century Constantinople.
In a 2006 review published in The Washington Post, author David Anthony Durham wrote that Mr. Unsworth had a “knack for making the past seem authentic in its historical detail while injecting his tales with lessons relevant to our contemporary struggles.”
His best-known book, “Sacred Hunger,” followed the turmoil aboard a merchant slave ship crossing the storm-blown seas of the Atlantic.
The book helped Mr. Unsworth gain prominence in the United States in the early 1990s and garnered him widespread praise among literary critics.
“In this brilliant narrative,” New York Times critic Herbert Mitgang wrote in 1992, “it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.”
The novel revolves around a physician, Matthew Paris, aboard the slave ship, who empathizes with the seasick slaves subjected to brutal conditions below deck. In one part, Mr. Unsworth unflinchingly describes the odor of burnt flesh wafting in the salty air after the slaves are branded with hot pokers.
After a hurricane beaches the ship on the south Florida coast, the surviving whites and blacks live together harmoniously at a wilderness encampment. Years later, the utopian community unravels when the wrecked ship’s owners come looking to reclaim their human property.
In a 1992 Post review, novelist Gary Jennings called the book “utterly magnificent,” noting that “by its last page, you will be close to weeping — not just for the wretched slaves and seamen, and for the many others maltreated, and for the brave, doomed colony — but for the whole of what Mark Twain once called ‘the damned human race.’ ”
Barry Forster Unsworth was born Aug. 10, 1930, in Wingate, County Durham, in northeast England. He was a 1951 English graduate of the University of Manchester.
After college, he traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, exploring Greece and Turkey — the settings of several of his novels. During the 1990s, he taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City.
His first novel, “The Partnership,” about a business relationship that is complicated by one man’s love for the other, was published in Britain in 1966. Mr. Unsworth’s popularity rose after the release of his 1973 book, “Mooncranker’s Gift,” about a budding intellectual and his mentor, which won the Heinemann Award for fiction.
His marriage to Valerie Moore ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Aira Pohjanvaara-Buffa, whom he married in 1992; and three children from his first marriage.