Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth

Published by Doubleday

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth is a novel of a man obsessed with an ideal. In many ways it is a literary novel, dealing as it does with an unreliable first-person narrator who sees everything through his own warped lens, but in the protagonist's driving need to clear his hero's name of the stain of culpability in a massacre it has a plot as driving as that of any commercial fiction.

This novel deals with the boundary between eccentricity and insanity, even as it follows the dissolution of protagonist Charles Cleasby's personal ego-boundaries until he identifies himself with Nelson to the point that he no longer knows where his own self ends and Nelson's begins.

England has had a long history of smiling indulgence for eccentrics, particularly when they are wealthy or are geniuses. Cleasby is no genius, just an amateur historian with a severe case of "biographer's disease" (the tendency, recognized in the historian's profession, for a biographer to identify with the subject of one's study to the point of willfully minimizing and excusing the subject's flaws and shortcomings). Neither is Cleasby particularly wealthy, although he is well-off enough from the inheritance he received from his father that he can live without working and without making himself a drain upon the public treasury.

The question then becomes when his obsession with Nelson crosses the line between amusing eccentricity and dangerous mental illness. So long as he's posing no real danger to himself or others, is there any real need for the mental hygene police to come storming in and enforce correct thought on his mind? Yet at the same time there's something sadly pathetic in the way he follows his obsession all the way to Italy, to the strange and rather obscure conclusion, a meeting that may have been real violence and may have been nothing but a final figment of an imagination left to feed too long.

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Review posted January 17, 2000

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