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on 29 June 2001
The Stone Virgin is set in Venice and the surrounding islands and covers themes of history, death, beauty, love, lust, tragedy and mystery. It is difficult to think of a theme that wasn't covered in this book on some way. The story revolves around three different time periods which together chart the story of the Stone Virgin from her construction to restoration. The focus of the book is the men and women whose lives have been interwined with and significantly affected by her presence. Unsworth successfully presents both the facade that Venice presents to visitors and the lives that go on behind the scenes as a dramatic backdrop. If you have ever been to Venice you can see, in your mind's eye, this story taking place in front of you. If you haven't you will want to go there. The story keep you turning the pages as the main character tries to piece together the mystery of the Stone Virgin. As the book progresses Unsworth creates a rich story around an unusual subject which operates at many levels but is brought together in a readable way - challenging but not over complex. The story continues to develop right to the last page. The construction reminds me of Zadie Smith's White Teeth - another hugely enjoyable book. After reading the Stone Virgin the next book I read will definitely be a Barry Unsworth!
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on 15 February 2010
I rate Barry Unsworth highly, and have done so ever since he was recognised with the Booker Prize in 1992, for his book `Sacred Hunger' - a book I would recommend reading, together with much of his other works. This book, `Stone virgin', is brilliant, and I have just read it again for the third time, prompted by a holiday in Venice. I could understand the geography of Venice described in the book much better, with it fresh in my memory, and the pocket map of the city from my hotel beside me. Unsworth obviously knows the place, its people, its history and its culture very well, and can convey the atmosphere skilfully.

The stone virgin referred to in the title is a statue of the Madonna, which seems to shine with a mysterious light and affects the people around it. The figure was carved in the fifteenth century, and the circumstances of its modelling form the first story thread, including love, sex and a death. The book shifts to the twentieth century, telling the multi-layered story of it being restored, also including love, adultery and a death. An `interlude' from the eighteenth century is inserted, which is highly comic, telling a story of seduction and adultery, which explains how the statue came to be placed on the front of a particular church, ending in the death of its narrator.

Time and history are complexly layered, with almost occult influences across the years. Each of the three main stories echoes and reflects the others. Phrases and human actions are repeated down the centuries. The past invades and even seems to control the present. "All things are in threes", as it says on the final page. For instance much of the narrative is carried by first-person accounts by the three main protagonists, in their different centuries, one writing letters of appeal against his unjust condemnation to death, one writing his Casanova-style memoirs and one writing a diary. There is much food for philosophical thought in this complex book, but lightened with the author's sense of humour and sensitivity to beauty.

However the most dominant impression of this book is its sensuality. It dwells on bodies, mainly female, made of stone and of flesh. There is a pervading sense of arousal and sexuality in all three ages, with ardent, but strangely false, physical passion, vividly described. There is betrayal and intrigue in all the love stories, but I should not give away the surprising twists and turns of the stories. Unsworth has written here one of the most erotic books I have read, but elevated to a high literary plane by his rich, intelligent, sophisticated sensibility.
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'Stone Virgin' is the story of three men, all from very different backgrounds and generations, linked by a beautiful stone virgin. In the 15th century the sculptor Girolamo carves an exquisite statue of the Madonna for a group of Venetian monks. This wonderful work costs him his life, after he begins an intense affair with his model. Three centuries later, the statue ends up in the garden of a wealthy elderly Venetian, whose young wife consummates her affair with her husband's secretary Zianni in front of it. And in the 1970s, in the main part of the story, Simon Raikes, a young sculpture restorer, travels to Venice to restore the Madonna. Haunted by strange visions, Raikes becomes increasingly obsessed not only with the Madonna and its past but also with Chiara, the beautiful wife of the sculptor Litsov who lives on one of the Venetian islands. And his combined obsessions drive him to uncharacteristically passionate action.

Venice, art and romantic passion sounded a good combination, and indeed the sections about sculpture and picture restoration were fascinating, as were most of the descriptions of the city. Unfortunately I found the very macho male characters very irritating. Unsworth seems determined to prove that the theory that the average man thinks of sex once a minute is true. Whenever Girolamo and Simon aren't sculpting or restoring, they are fantasizing in depth about women in general and the women they love (Bianca for Girolamo, Chiara for Simon) in particular. But their feelings seem to be more connected to lust than real romantic love - they're not very interested in the women as individuals, only in their beauty and grace, and in whether they give sexual satisfaction. This means that the novel's romantic elements are unconvincing. Zianni, who doesn't do anything apart from write and fantasize about sex (he's a sort of second-rate Casanova) is worse; I believe the sections about his experiences are meant to be funny, but instead they are repetitive and boring, and far too long drawn out. It doesn't help that the main women in the book are ciphers rather than fully realized characters - we never get any of the story from their perspective or get to know them and their feelings, and have to make do with long discussions of their limbs, graceful ways of moving, breasts, hair, skill in bed etc etc. This ultimately makes the book feel somewhat misogynistic, with woman's purpose being largely to serve as a sex object (Chiara even makes a point to Simon about this at one point). I also felt that the decision to turn the novel into a thriller or who-dunnit towards the end didn't work, particularly as the mystery collapsed in the final pages.

Unsworth is an accomplished writer and full of good ideas. But the 'sex sex sex' focus of this novel, and the sketchy portrayal of the female characters made it a somewhat frustrating read for me. Coupled with the misanthropy of 'After Hannibal' it hasn't really encouraged me to explore his writing further - which may be a pity as he sounds an interesting man.
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on 13 July 2010
Thi is a gorgeous and very sensitively rendered book in which a compelling story is told over three different time periods, each bringing a convincing version of Venice.

The idea that this book might be misogynous (as a lone reviewer states below) is just laughable - it's a very wonderful and life-enhancing book
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on 7 October 2013
Barry Unsworth writes brilliantly... lyrical, humorous, tender... human!

This is a great story, well told. I would thoroughly recommend it to all!
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on 3 September 2016
The pages although in a fairly good condition were very discoloured with age. Made reading the print more difficult.
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on 2 August 2011
An engaging, intelligent and well-crafted read. An unusual blend of historical/thiller/romance genres with a strong sensual theme running through it. He is a versatile author and always worth reading.
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on 25 August 2012
Not his best
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