I rate Barry Unsworth highly, and have done so ever since he was recognised with the Booker Prize in 1992, for his book ‘Sacred Hunger’ – a book I would recommend reading, together with much of his other works. This book, ‘Stone virgin’, is brilliant, and I have just read it again for the third time, prompted by a holiday in Venice. I could understand the geography of Venice described in the book much better, with it fresh in my memory, and the pocket map of the city from my hotel beside me. Unsworth obviously knows the place, its people, its history and its culture very well, and can convey the atmosphere skilfully.
The stone virgin referred to in the title is a statue of the Madonna, which seems to shine with a mysterious light and affects the people around it. The figure was carved in the fifteenth century, and the circumstances of its modelling form the first story thread, including love, sex and a death. The book shifts to the twentieth century, telling the multi-layered story of it being restored, also including love, adultery and a death. An ‘interlude’ from the eighteenth century is inserted, which is highly comic, telling a story of seduction and adultery, which explains how the statue came to be placed on the front of a particular church, ending in the death of its narrator.
Time and history are complexly layered, with almost occult influences across the years. Each of the three main stories echoes and reflects the others. Phrases and human actions are repeated down the centuries. The past invades and even seems to control the present. “All things are in threes”, as it says on the final page. For instance much of the narrative is carried by first-person accounts by the three main protagonists, in their different centuries, one writing letters of appeal against his unjust condemnation to death, one writing his Casanova-style memoirs and one writing a diary. There is much food for philosophical thought in this complex book, but lightened with the author’s sense of humour and sensitivity to beauty.
However the most dominant impression of this book is its sensuality. It dwells on bodies, mainly female, made of stone and of flesh. There is a pervading sense of arousal and sexuality in all three ages, with ardent, but strangely false, physical passion, vividly described. There is betrayal and intrigue in all the love stories, but I should not give away the surprising twists and turns of the stories. Unsworth has written here one of the most erotic books I have read, but elevated to a high literary plane by his rich, intelligent, sophisticated sensibility.