Powerful dreamlike sense of place and time

This is my review of Pascali’s Island by Barry Unsworth.

I found this a remarkably well-written and compelling page turner, although I felt let down by the ending.

It is 1908, with the Ottoman Empire in decline and Europe on the brink of the First World War. After twenty years as a poorly paid informer on a Greek island beginning to revolt against Turkish control, Basil Pascali is perhaps losing touch with reality, partly through a life of isolation and deception, partly because his reports have never been acknowledged. So, he imagines that at every turn the Greek islanders wish him ill, and his reports are full of details of daily life which can be of little interest, of irrelevant although beautiful descriptions of the island he knows so well plus some very subversive observations on Turkish rule – corrupt and ossified.

The arrival of Mr. Bowles, the Englishman who claims to be an archaeologist and writer on antiquities, immediately arouses Pascali's suspicions, although he sees conspiracy and deviousness everywhere, even in the behaviour of the artist Lydia whom he loves without any hope of a return of feeling, or the activities of the American Smith, out fishing for sponges in his caïque (lots of wonderfully evocative words in this book). Then, Bowles asks Pascali to act as interpreter for his negotiations to lease some land……..

With a continual sense of suspense, this tightly plotted tale builds up to a predictably tragic climax which left me less moved or satisfied with the denouement than I should have been. I think this is partly because Pascali is so self-controlled and analytical, rarely displaying normal emotion but often admitting to his faults in a rather clinical way. Also, Unsworth's habit of telling the reader what is going to happen tends to diffuse some of the potential drama. Certainly, I found his plotting in his last novel, "Quality of Mercy" much more satisfactory, and his dialogues sharper and more realistic.

I believe Unsworth spent years living on Greek islands, so that this book is a distillation of his own observation of nature and the local people. He is at his best in his remarkably articulate and well-observed descriptions of the quality of light around the island, its changes during the day, and interplay with the air and the sea. The writing is a little mannered, but that fits the period and Pascali's temperament. The repetitious references to, say, the fishermen casting their nets are not only strong metaphors but help to create a hypnotic effect, serving to explain how Pascali is held on the island by a kind of spell.

Some of the philosophical arguments are a bit heavy-going, but Unsworth is good on historical detail. The artist Lydia's realistic style of painting, and rejection of the "colourists" and "Expressionists" who were gaining popularity at the time is probably very authentic. The nationalistic prejudices of the various characters and the stereotyping, say of Bowles as an idealistic and naively honest Englishman (although Pascali sees through him) also reflect attitudes of the time.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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