Charles is obsessed with Nelson. He hurries home to his basement to re-enact Nelson's battles on their anniversary ... to the minute. He believes that his life runs in parallel with Nelson's; that he is Nelson's dark shadow. He sees Nelson as the perfect hero. The only thing that worries him is Nelson's behaviour in Naples when he may have tricked some rebels into surrendering and then executed them. That and his new secretary, to whom he is dictating his book on Nelson, who prefers her men to be gentle and thoughtful and kind and sees Nelson as a vain serial killer, crippled psychologically as well as physically. Her opposition will bring Charles to a crisis in which he is forced to confront the truth about heroism.
It is a fascinating book, dissecting both obsession and the nature of heroism (which is a type of obsession). There are some amusing incidents, such as when the protagonist meets a writer who can be no other than a portrait of the author himself (and sees him as an obsessive). The characters of the protagonist and the antagonist (and can there ever have been a gentler antagonist?) are brilliantly written as are the settings of the book. The plot is perfectly paced: the talk Charles gives to the Nelson society is pivotal and half-way through the book.
And not only did I learn a lot about Nelson but also my probable ancestor, Alexander Davison, Nelson's prize-agent, is mentioned in the book!
- "Timing is the key to control and control is the key to concealment." (Ch 1)
- "My father was a master of concealment, he kept it up so well that nobody knew just when he died" (Ch 1)
- "I will say what I think angels are. They can be dark or bright, but they all have the gift of spontaneity, of creating themselves anew." (Ch 1)
- "What else would an angel seem, out of his element, portrayed by mediocre men, but grotesque?" (Ch 13)
- "The path of the hero cannot be smooth; he must show disregard for all restraints of prudence." (Ch 13)
- "The quintessential act of heroic insubordination, the ultimate rejection of half-measures." (Ch 13)
- "By this time I had begun to experience the usual symptoms of rage: a sense of impaired vision, a feeling that the skin of my face was too tight." (Ch 14)
- "I had no friends at all. But of course it was the price on paid for being on the shadow side." (Ch 19)
- "Many were crucified, but there is only one cross." (Ch 19)
- "Nelson ... was always so ready to get people killed. If you look at it one way, he was a sort of serial killer." (Ch 21)
- "He looked like a god glutted with sacrifice." (Ch 23)
Barry Unsworth won the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger.
May 2021; 313 pages
- "If a man considers whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain that his opinion is against fighting." (Ch 13)