Now meet into sorrow, now madden to crime

This is my review of Rage of the Vulture by Barry Unsworth.

Inspired to read this by a mixture of Unsworth's last books plus his recent death, it is sad to be the first person to review this for more than a decade!

So soon after the Arab Spring this novel seems very topical, although it refers to an earlier period – Constantinople in 1908 with dissident forces returning from abroad and massing against the autocratic Sultan, hiding away in his palace in a time warp with his telescope, harem, eunuchs and maze of secret passages to avoid assassination.

Against this backcloth of historical events is the personal drama of Robert Markham, an introspective man who has been driven to the brink of madness through his guilt over only thinking about saving his own skin when his Armenian fiancée Miriam was murdered twelve years previously. Bent on revenge without quite knowing how to achieve it, Markham is obsessed with the Sultan who epitomises for him the evil force which destroyed both the Armenians and other innocent parties.

Unsworth's prose is carefully crafted, perhaps too much so at times, but at its best conjures up strong visual images, and has the power to evoke vivid impressions of the sheer age of the city, stone mosques in the mist, the wonderful views from boats crossing the waterways, also the poverty and squalor. Unsworth has the ability to dissect a man's motives in minute detail, all the shades of feeling and changes in attitude. Markham is a complex and in some ways rather repellent character, yet he still arouses some sympathy.

The author carries you straight into what is clearly "a good yarn" with a serious, thought-provoking undercurrent, although it may seem a little dated, being in the same vein as Somerset Maugham or E.M. Forster.

The first part of the book worked better for me with its clear structure. Each chapter begins with an account of the Sultan's isolated life and casual cruelty, before moving to the account of Markham's mental disintegration, poisoning all his close personal relationships. Some scenes focus on his son Henry, potentially very like him, a secretive child, whose habit of hiding and spying on people means that he accidentally obtains dangerous knowledge, although he cannot make much sense of it.

The second part is a continuous build-up to a crisis which we are prepared to think will be a tragedy, yet somehow give Markham release. I found this section heavy going, partly because Unsworth feels the need to describe everything in so much detail that it becomes oppressive. Also, the plotting itself loses some of the tight momentum of the earlier chapters. I found myself wanting to skip paragraphs. At least it ends with quite an effective climax and satisfying epilogue.

Despite my reservations, it's a bit depressing to see how the self-effacing Unsworth, without the assistance of modern marketing techniques, has been undervalued in comparison with some of the heavily hyped recent historical blockbusters, which in fact have only a fraction of his subtlety and insight.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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