SUGAR AND RUM

By Barry Unsworth

Norton. 247 pp. Paperback, $13

Reviewed by Guy Amirthanayagam

Time past in England is sometimes time present in the United States: This book, first published across the Atlantic in 1988, has just been issued in an American edition. However, better late than never. The only other novel of Barry Unsworth's that I have read is Morality Play, which is magnificent and approaches the quality of Greek drama. But on the evidence of that and this, I would unhesitatingly place Unsworth in the crop of outstanding British contemporary novelists that includes Anita Brookner, William Boyd, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson and Ian McEwan.

The setting of the novel is for the most part the seedy, decrepit parts of Liverpool. Many of the tall Victorian houses have slumped and cracked open, it seems -- gaping, ruinous, eviscerated, spilling their rubble out onto choked gardens, or charred and gutted with arson. People, mainly men, mainly black, mainly out of work, sit on seats along the central strip, where stunted saplings grow at intervals in their cages of wire netting. But the grim description of this derelict landscape with its abandoned projects is relieved by the author's satiric, almost macabre humor: "Only the name of the contractor was left; Bentcock -- mocking with its suggestion of poor performance the failure of any erection to materialise on the site."

The narrator, Clive Benson, is a seeker of portents, a decipherer of correspondences, a receiver of messages. He vents his reflective monologues on down-at-heel black listeners, who are largely mute, because he can find no other audience or company. This habit leads him into hot water, as when he is mugged but escapes being killed by a gang he calls the Mohicans. At the beginning of the novel, Benson sees a man leap to his death from an upper story of a block of flats. This is the first of many omens Benson tries to decipher.

Another important locale is from memory: the equally barren terrain of a part of Italy where Benson spent some time during the war. It is there he came to know Thompson, now a singing panhandler near the city's railway station, and Slater, a highly successful entrepreneur. There were many grotesque incidents during the war, and since Benson is a collector he enters them in his scrapbook, along with cuttings from newspapers and elsewhere, such as "Sri Lankan army personnel are extracting the eyes of Tamils killed in clashes with troops and sending them to eye banks for export, a Tamil group said."

Meanwhile, despite assiduously researching the slave trade for the purpose of writing a novel, Benson has stalled, suffering from writer's block. He sets himself up as a literary consultant for would-be writers and gathers some clients of varying skills whom he calls "Fictioneers." His own Muse is recalcitrant, and in his courtship of her he finds a woman called Alma Corrigan, whom he thinks could be his inspiration. Unsworth's treatment of the ensuing love relationship is refreshingly subdued. Alma and some of the Fictioneers play crucial roles in the denouement, which is literally an explosive event. I will not say more about the novel's unusual conclusion lest I spoil the reader's pleasure. Sugar and Rum is an exceptionally fine novel.

Guy Amirthanayagam is a poet and essayist. His new book, "The Marriage of Continents: Multiculturalism in Modern Literature," will be published this summer.