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Losing Nelson [Paperback]

Barry Unsworth
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 July 2000
In the basement of a large Victorian house in London, Charles Cleasby painstakingly re-enacts the great sea battles of his hero, Horatio Nelson. He is also writing a faithful biography of the great man, as a true English hero for an age without idols, a 'bright angel' to Charles's dark shadow. But as Charles's visiting typist, Miss Lily, begins to question Nelson's heroism, and as Charles unearths evidence which tarnishes the image of his icon, his own precarious sense of identity is undermined and the battle raging inside him -- between darkness and light, reality and fantasy -- threatens to overwhelm him.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (6 July 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140260919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140260915
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 448,445 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Admiral Horatio Nelson has remained one of the enduring heroes of English nationalism. Perched atop Nelson's column in London, the Admiral has been rattled on his pedestal with Tom Pocock's revelations in Nelson's Women. However, Barry Unsworth's devastating novel Losing Nelson takes the interrogation of the Admiral even further, in this dark, gripping study of the dark side of heroism and hero worship.

In the basement of his large anonymous North London house, Charles Cleasby obsessively re-enacts every manoeuvre of every single military engagement undertaken by his hero and "bright angel", Admiral Nelson. Cleasby's fervent admiration of the Admiral extends upstairs to his life's work, a biography of the great man. Cleasby's only assistant in his heroic struggle with Nelson is Miss Lily, a hired secretary paid by the hour, who carefully transcribes Cleasby's painstaking attempts to rescue Nelson's name from unpatriotic, academic cynics. Yet Cleasby's passion soon reveals a darker side, as he declares that he is in fact Nelson's "dark twin", sharing with the Admiral a parental bereavement at the same age. This, alongside the brutality of his emotionally crippled father, throws Cleasby into an agoraphobic tangent to everyday reality. His only solace is his growing attachment to Miss Lily, and the ongoing struggling with his bright angel, as the novel slowly and deliberately builds to its shocking climax.

Losing Nelson confirms the Booker prize-winning Unsworth as one of the most elegant but understated novelists currently writing. The historical grasp of Nelson is outstanding, but where the novel really excels, and also profoundly disturbs, is in its exploration of the tarnished angels of patriotism and heroism. This is an absorbing, troubling novel. --Jerry Brotton --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Barry Unsworth jointly won the 1992 Booker Prize with his novel SACRED HUNGER. He was also shortlisted for the Booker prize on two further occaisions for PASCALI'S ISLAND and MORALITY PLAY.

Originally from a mining village in Durham, he now lives in Italy. Barry Unsworth is currently the Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at John Moore's University in Liverpool.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
There have been a number of dramatic, descent-into-madness books in the past few years, but Losing Nelson is so much more sophisticated and so much broader in scope that I hope it will not be categorized with other, more limited (though still fascinating!) books. With a main character so complete that one remembers him for much more than his obsession with Nelson and his descent into madness, the novel is remarkable in its development and narrative tension.
Charles Cleasby, highly intelligent and very reclusive, believes that he and Adm. Nelson are the same person--that he is, in fact, the dark side of Nelson. At the outset of the novel, Cleasby is trying to reconcile his abiding belief in Nelson's heroism with Nelson's behavior in 1798, when he aided the Bourbon rulers in Naples against the French and directly contributed to the outbreak of a civil war in Naples. Strong evidence suggests that Nelson has betrayed a truce and that he bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Neapolitans.
Unsworth so thoroughly incorporates the life of Nelson with the life of Cleasby that we feel Cleasby's confusion about his alter-ego Nelson and sympathize with his moral quandary. The historical detail throughout is both fascinating and pertinent in showing parallels between the characters and in highlighting their differences. The movement of the narrative back and forth in time and location is seamless. Ultimately, Unsworth raises the larger questions of what constitutes a hero and why a nation even needs heroes, elevating this book to a significance of scope and universality that few novels ever achieve. Mary Whipple
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deserves to become a modern classic. 19 Mar 2001
By A Customer
This absorbing novel works at two levels. At the most obvious it provides a quite chilling portrayal into an obsessive personality's accelerating retreat from reality, describing it with wit, insight and sympathy. Beyond this however it provides an extended meditation on the contradictions and conflicts associated with the gifts of genius and heroism. The subject of the protagonist's fixation is Horatio Nelson, whose biography he has been writing over many years. The crisis of the novel is brought about by his inability to reconcile Nelson's brilliance and inspired leadership as a naval commander with his pettiness ashore, with the crunch coming as regards Nelson's disputed, but probable, betrayal of his word as regards treatment of surrendered Neapolitan revolutionaries in 1799. The great strength of the novel is the way in which Nelson's career prior to and after this turning point is dealt with so rationally by the main character, and the reasoned way in which he deals with the adverse and pedestrian criticism of his hero by the prosaically-minded but kindly typist who is assisting him, thus throwing his inability to cope with the facts of Neapolitan episode into even sharper contrast. This is however only one of the many contrasts that dominate the story. Another is between the excitement and dash of Nelson's life afloat and the wretched biographer's claustrophobic existence in a modern England that has seldom been portrayed in terms more grey. Within Nelson's own life the contrasts continue, between his masterly grasp of the application of seapower at all its levels and the confusion and squalor of his private life and between the clarity of his judgement under extreme stress in battle and the pathetic vanity that dominates his behaviour ashore. Read more ›
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A great read with a perplexing finale. 23 Sep 2002
I found this story to be well written with very good characterisation, well researched and interesting. Although it is likely to appeal more to readers with an interest in Nelson, such a knowledge is not necessary to enjoyment. The main character borders on madness and his mental state as he grapples with the truth behind Nelson's involvement in the butchering of inocents in Naples is absorbing. However, like another reviewer, I was completely mystified by the ending which I also did not understand. This was a pity because with a good ending it would have warranted 5 stars. So if you think you're good at unravelling mental complexities, this is for you.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inside loneliness 6 April 2001
By A Customer
I can only whole-heartedly agree with the review by D.A.O'Neil. This is an insightful and enthralling novel of a lonely soul who is absolutely heartwrenching in his nakedness. He is unable to interact with real people, and increasingly, also with himself. The lurking madness under the neat and ordinary surface is only hinted at, and I marvel at the gentle, inconspicuous and almost loving way Mr Unsworth produces this effect - reading this novel one is really inside raving loneliness and peering out through the eye-slits. In texts of this kind, tiresome childhood clichés often abound - here, childhood memories appear genuinely suppressed and genuinely acute. And the poor protagonist has no clue, and this also feels so genuine and believable. As time goes by, he slowly begins to understand, but the insights are too much for him. All very quietly and gradually, very orderly and quite devastating.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Losing Nelson 15 Mar 2005
This is very well told story and beautifully written. I actually read it alongside Christopher Hibberts biography of Nelson at the same time which gave me more information.
The story is based around 1 man who is obsessed with Nelson and reliving the major events within Nelsons life and the story is told through his eyes. In fact, his entire outlook and way of living is grouped around his obsession. However, there are elements within Nelson's own life and character that he cannot come to terms with and this is the story of reality encroaching into fantasy.
Very thought provoking although I wasn't that keen on the ending as I didn't feel it lived upto the promise elsewhere in the book, but definately worth reading.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Unsworth at His Best
Barry Unsworth stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries, with a range of subject matters that swept across centuries and civilizations. Read more
Published 11 months ago by John Fitzpatrick
5.0 out of 5 stars When historians go too far
Oh, how easy it is to flirt around the edges of obsession. Charles Cleasby, who's in it up to his neck in Unsworth's wonderful novel, is at one end of the spectrum, admittedly; but... Read more
Published on 23 April 2011 by L. Camidge
4.0 out of 5 stars Engrossing and unsettling
Losing Nelson is perhaps the best novel I've read about mental health issues and what it is like to be obsessed and living in an alternative universe. Read more
Published on 3 Aug 2009 by Jl Adcock
5.0 out of 5 stars Myth and identity - a dangerous mix
When an infant, I used to wiggle the ridges off my candlewick bedspread. I don't know whether it was a search for solace in the tactile, but it used to exasperate my mother,... Read more
Published on 23 Aug 2007 by Philip Spires
4.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic ending
I loved the two main characters in the book and felt that Charles only came alive in the presence of Miss Lily. Would that there had been more of her. Read more
Published on 8 Oct 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb study of hero worship and obsession
As well as a great novel this book shows that Unsworth conducted in depth research into Nelson's campaigns and is an excellent introduction to the questions and ambiguities... Read more
Published on 13 Mar 2003
2.0 out of 5 stars I See No Plot
This book disappointed me greatly due to its meandering to an inappropriate conclusion, which left me as a reader all at sea (groan). Read more
Published on 19 Feb 2003 by T Marshall
4.0 out of 5 stars Deep, thought-provoking
This is a fascinating book, which works on a number of levels. OK there's a lot here about Nelson and some of his battles but there is much more, not least the study of... Read more
Published on 6 Mar 2001
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