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Sacred Hunger Paperback – November 17, 1993


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Sacred Hunger + The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Studies in Comparative World History) + Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (November 17, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393311147
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393311143
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #172,273 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This vast, vividly realistic historical novel follows the crew of a slave-trading vessel from its Liverpool shipyard through days at anchor bartering human cargo on the Guinea Coast, then on beyond the slaver's disease-ridden and mutinous Middle Passage. With an epic ambition that seems suited to its 18th-century setting, Unsworth ( Stone Virgin ) takes on a big theme--greed, the animating "sacred hunger" of the title--but at the same time fills his huge canvas with the alternately fascinating and horrifying details of shipboard life, colonial plunder and power struggles, the London clubs of absentee sugar lords, even a pidgin Utopia created by slaves and seamen on unclaimed Florida coast. Deftly utilizing a flood of period detail, Unsworth has written a book whose stately pace, like the scope of its meditations, seems accurately to evoke the age. Tackling here a central perversity of our history--the keeping of slaves in a land where "all men are created equal"--Unsworth illuminates the barbaric cruelty of slavery, as well as the subtler habits of politics and character that it creates. As intricate as it is immense, this masterwork rewards every turn of its 640 pages. (July) one with a continuing fascination for readers and authors alike--Unsworth illuminates its cruel ties and miscarriages, its floggings and murders, as well as the subtler habits of politics and character that it creates. As intricate as it is immense, this masterwork rewards every turn of its 640 pages.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

With its graphic depiction of the 18th-century slave trade and a society driven by the desire to maximize profit regardless of the human cost, this new novel by the author of Pascali's Island (Penguin, 1988) offers a dark view of human nature clearly relevant to our own time. William Kemp hopes to recoup his losses in cotton speculation by entering the Triangular Trade. As ship's doctor, his nephew Matthew experiences firsthand the horrors of shipboard life, ultimately leading a revolt that lands the crew and remaining slaves on the southeastern coast of Florida. Here they try to establish "a paradise place," but events force Matthew to conclude that "nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way." Though the pace drags at times, taken as a whole this is a masterful effort that delivers an important message. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.
- David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

One page into this book and you're his for every page till the last.
Jim Duggins, Ph.D.
The book shows us the utter brutality inflicted by Thurso and his subordinates on both slaves and the crew.
Jeffrey Leach
A beautifully written and articulate book combining history and sense of place with a compelling story.
Marna Anderson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

107 of 109 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on June 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
When I had the opportunity to read Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger," I jumped at the chance, and not because this author won the Booker Prize. I didn't know a thing about him, had never heard of him, and couldn't have cared if he had won any prize related to writing. All I knew was that I could receive credit for a directed readings class at my university for reading the novel. The topic I was working on at the time concerned Atlantic history, a hot area of research for historians, and most of the books I read up to this point were lengthy, scholarly works full of footnotes and massive bibliographies. So when my professor suggested the idea of a novel covering many of the same themes, I readily accepted. Who wouldn't take a break from the tedium of academia? I quickly discovered that Unsworth's book involved a bit of work to get through. This novel isn't a mass-market paperback type read, not by a long shot. It's an incredibly well researched, multilayered piece of historical fiction that manages to incorporate nearly every aspect of the slave trade while maintaining a level of prose that would make Charles Dickens stand up and applaud.

"Sacred Hunger" follows many characters throughout its 600 plus pages, from lowly sailors to venture capitalists to slaves to dozens of other major and minor characters. The overarching storyline involves one William Kemp, a wealthy English cotton merchant currently down on his luck, and his effort to reap a quick profit from the slave trade circa 1750. He commissions the building of a vessel for just such a purpose, hires a bellicose tar by the name of Saul Thurso to helm the ship, and stakes his entire fortune on its success.
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53 of 54 people found the following review helpful By C. Burgess on May 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
I read this book about three years ago, and some of the passages are still etched vividly in my mind. The writing in amazingly lush. As some reviewers have already pointed out, there is a great deal of detail in some of the passages which, in lesser hands, could be terribly boring (Like in Millhauser's "Martin Dressler"). But here, they are magical. This is one of the few books where I would actually stop periodically to re-read the previous couple of pages just to savor the writing once again. Unsworth is a gifted writer who paints luxurious pictures on every page. The passages about crossing the ocean in the hold of a slave ship are harrowing.
But this book succeeds because of more than just good writing. The plot is complex and compelling, and the characters are entirely real. I'm normally not a fan of historical fiction, but this one is a real winner.
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Eric J. Lyman on August 6, 2003
Format: Paperback
Make no mistake about it, reading Sacred Hunger is a significant undertaking -- both in terms of the impact this complex and epic story will have on you and because of the time and concentration it will take to navigate the book's more than 600 pages. That significance is something to savor.
I will avoid the cliché of saying that the story "has it all," but Sacred Hunger does come close to that. There's the adventure of a band of men moving between three continents and pushed until they snapped and yet optimistically deciding to create what they saw as a kind of utopia, there is an examination of the cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on each other, the story includes an accurate lesson in a period of history and its economics and geography, a touching love story, a metaphor for modern times.
Curiously, the pages also include the story of a small brass button. I still haven't decided what the button represents, but I did note that it is the only thing in the story that manages to survive all the kinds of hell the length of the story includes, changing hands at least six times between the beginning of the book and its final pages and yet it ends up no worse off.
The title of this volume refers to its grandest theme, the desire that drives men to extreme action. It is in this aspect that the book shines brightest, as the term is defined differently but compellingly for each of the main characters, especially the two main characters, cousins Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris.
There is a sacred hunger in almost all of the less central characters as well, in Michael Sullivan (the fiddle player who longed to be treated like a man ...
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By GZA on August 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Barry Unsworth's novel Sacred Hunger is an exquisitely crafted tale of commerce and corruption set in 18th century England, at the heart of which lies the tension between the moral characters of two cousins. Erasmus Kemp is the intense, arrogant son of a slave ship owner, who holds the prevailing opinion of the day that the lawful accumulation of wealth is the only way a man should live his life. Mathew Paris is the ship's doctor recently rescued from prison by his uncle for publishing blasphemous and seditious views on evolution. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of the Liverpool Merchant's ill-fated voyage to Africa to buy slaves, and the mutiny that follows.
Paris is a thoughtful and troubled man whose constant battle against pride enriches him with a humanity and compassion that are beyond his cousin's reach or understanding. The respective self awareness of the two characters is fascinating: while Kemp has no conscious doubt whatsoever that right is on his side, Paris is plagued by self-doubt and guilt at his wife's death while he was in prison. Kemp's hatred for Paris is a deep-rooted one, possibly founded on the sub-conscious knowledge that it is in fact his cousin who is the better man, despite what society would have him believe. Kemp possesses power and wealth, but these aren't enough to combat the monomania of his hatred for Paris and its tragic consequences. Unsworth portrays vividly the moral bankruptcy that festers at the heart of 18th century English society, where the kidnapping and trading of human beings is seen as a lawful enterprise while the mere expression of views contrary to the current religious ones is seen as unlawful and pernicious.
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