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Losing Nelson

by Barry Unsworth

Hamish Hamilton pounds 15.99

If you're after a boys' book that isn't about football or misogyny, you may wish to give thanks for Barry Unsworth, who can be relied upon for action, drama, topography, historical grasp, broad sweep and non-extraneous violence, both on land and at sea. A reader can also count on the authentic portrayal of inner life and a nice structural deftness in the binding together of present and past.

is a book with two flawed heroes. It knits together two stories that run parallel. "Parallel" is one of the operative words, since our present-day hero is not only mad, but obsessional. "Control," as he says, "is the key." The primary story, narrated by the Nineties hero, is an eccentric and rather circular biography of Horatio Nelson, England's sea- faring genius who sensationally outmanoeuvred the Spanish at Cape St Vincent and defeated the French at Aboukir Bay and Trafalgar. He is the bright, diminutive, disobedient angel who first "breaks the line" in 1797. He has the "gift of spontaneity".

He is also the troubling personality, narrowed by harshness, who loses his mother at nine and puts out to sea at 12. Easily flattered, especially by women, a francophobe and zealously royalist, he falls simultaneously for the brutal Bourbon duo which rule Naples, and for Emma Hamilton, wife of the aged British ambassador. In the context of these unsavoury connections he violates a treaty ensuring safe conduct for the defeated Neapolitan republicans in 1799; a violation which throws vast numbers into the hands of the merciless King Ferdinand and leads to the slow torture and public execution of, among others, the whole class of Neapolitan intellectuals. Robert Southey referred to this episode as "a stain upon the memory of Nelson and the honour of England" and - according to one character in this book - its effects are still being felt in the south of Italy today.

All these events are vividly evoked. There is the strategy, the stink and the noise of 18th-century naval warfare, a form of battle designed effectively for mutilation and maiming, and it comes complete with descriptions such as that of Captain Jervis, who manages coolly to call for an orange while holding his position, his face and torso splashed with the exploded brains and skull fragments of one of his men. On land, too, there are the minutiae of Frederick's murderous excesses as the royalist lazzaroni play ball with lopped heads in the blood-drenched streets and the bodies of hanged men and women swing grotesquely from the gallows. Afterwards, the livers of the dead are roasted and eaten.

The parallel story is that of Charles Cleasby, Nelson's apologist and aspirant biographer. A timorous but intelligent inadequate with hobbies, Charles, through the course of the novel's seven months, reveals himself as increasingly precarious and unstable. His hobbies are to enact Nelson's battles in real time on a billiard table in basement of his house in Belsize Park, with the model ships he has been constructing since childhood, and to collect Nelson memorabilia. Victim of a beloved mother who deserted when the boy was nine, and a sadistic, dominating male parent, Charles is driven from chess, which is his first obsessional pursuit, into an equally intense identification with Nelson through the accidental discovery that the hero of Trafalgar also lost his mother at nine. After an undergraduate breakdown, this identification intensifies to a point where his mode of reference to Nelson varies from the more normal "he" to the over-familiar "Horatio", to "we" and sometimes "I".

Unlike his alter-ego who "never saw fear," the adult Charles is afraid of almost everything. He has phases of agoraphobia during which he is obliged to live on take-out pizza and stale sandwiches. He is afraid of eyes and eye-contact. He is phobic about opaque screens because he imagines eyes emerging from them. As his doubt about his ability to exonerate Nelson over the Neapolitan Jacobins increases, he becomes unable to inhabit his own precious basement for fear of Nelson's angry eyes which begin to stare at him from a larger-than-life papier mache bust. But the basement is essential, if he is to keep his life and Horatio's in tandem. Something has to go, and it does, in a conclusion which manages the parallels quite brilliantly as the author allows the reader to decode a stretch of Neapolitan terrain quite differently from the by now psychotic "dark side" of the nautical "bright angel".

So the book is wonderful. Here are two little gripes. One has to do with Miss Lily, Charles's assistant from Avon Secretarial Services. This lady is unimpressed with Nelson's heroism and her point of view seriously undermines Charles's own. It is meant to represent the feminine, but one soon tires of Miss Lily's idiot tendency to equate "my Bobby" - that is to say, her own over-mothered dolt - with that motherless 12-year-old midshipman making his lone way to Chatham Docks in 1771.

The other gripe is more general. Are too many current novels effectively popular history books? While such books are full of information and thus "improving", it is hard to escape the hunch that they are not particularly difficult to write. One can read several histories and then write them up in one's own more exciting words, employing all one's novelistic flair. One is then reviewed, not by historians, but by lay persons who will give the history an easy ride. Furthermore, one wins Brownie points galore from the Lola Young school of literary criticism which will always see "relevance" in topography, historical grasp, broad sweep, etcetera, even when the book is nothing like as good as .