WASHINGTON — Barry Unsworth, a prize-winning British novelist whose works brilliantly illuminated the moral struggles within exotic cultures in ages past, died June 5 in Umbria, Italy, where he had lived since the 1990s. He was 81.
He had lung cancer, according to British news accounts.
Mr. Unsworth was considered a master of historical fiction and was known for his keen ability to make the tribulations of ancient times relevant to contemporary readers.
In 1992, he shared Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for his novel ‘‘Sacred Hunger,’’ about the perilous transatlantic journey of an 18th-century slave ship.
The other winner of the literary award that year was Michael Ondaatje for ‘‘The English Patient.’’
In a review of Mr. Unsworth’s most recent novel, ‘‘The Quality of Mercy,’’ Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles wrote this year that Mr. Unsworth ‘‘entices us back into a past gloriously appointed with archival detail and moral complexity.’’
Mr. Unsworth’s ‘‘sentences recall the sharp detail, moral sensitivity, and ready wit of Charles Dickens,’’ Charles wrote. ‘‘But his sense of the lumbering, uneven gait of social progress is more sophisticated, more tempered, one might say, by history.’’
Mr. Unsworth wrote 17 novels. His works explored the oil-lusting greed behind the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; investigated the blemished war career of British sailor-statesman Lord Horatio Nelson; and traced the life of intrigue of a spy in early 20th-century Constantinople.
His best-known book, ‘‘Sacred Hunger,’’ followed the turmoil aboard a merchant slave ship crossing the storm-blown Atlantic.
The book helped Mr. Unsworth gain prominence in the United States in the early 1990s and garnered him widespread praise among literary critics.
‘‘In this brilliant narrative,’’ New York Times critic Herbert Mitgang wrote in 1992, ‘‘it is impossible not to feel that Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.’’
Barry Forster Unsworth was born Aug. 10, 1930, in Wingate, County Durham, in northeast England. He was a 1951 English graduate of the University of Manchester.
After college, he traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, exploring Greece and Turkey — the settings of several of his novels.
During the 1990s, he taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City.
He leaves his wife, Aira Pohjanvaara-Buffa, whom he married in 1992; and three children from his first marriage.