- Paperback: 656 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (November 17, 1993)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393311147
- ISBN-13: 978-0393311143
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.3 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 109 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #797,860 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Sacred Hunger Paperback – November 17, 1993
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“This brilliantly suspenseful period piece about the slave trade in the 18th century is also a meditation on how avarice dehumanizes the oppressor as well as the oppressed.”
- Chicago Tribune
“Wonderful and heartbreaking....It is a book of grace and meditative elegance, and of great moral seriousness.”
- New York Times Book Review
“Utterly magnificent....By its last page, you will be close to weeping.”
- Washington Post
About the Author
Barry Unsworth (1930-2012), who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker Prize finalist for Morality Play and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel.
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"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. He even enlists his nephew Matthew Paris, a physician who spent time in prison for challenging church dogma, to serve as the ship's doctor. The book flip flops back and forth from the travails of the slave voyage to the adventures of William's son Erasmus, a dour young capitalist whose plans revolve around marrying the daughter of a wealthy businessman and expanding his own family's holdings once his father passes on. Erasmus's plans come to naught when the slave ship disappears somewhere in the Caribbean, leading to a series of events that take many years to unravel. It takes that long to ascertain that Thurso's ship didn't just disappear into thin air, but was hijacked through a mutiny involving slaves, shipmates, and Matthew Paris.
Unsworth spares no effort to convey to the reader a sense of actually witnessing the slave trade up close and personal. We learn of the vile techniques used to impress hapless sailors into maritime service through the stories of unfortunate wretches such as Billy Blair and the fiddle player Michael Sullivan. The book shows us the utter brutality inflicted by Thurso and his subordinates on both slaves and the crew. We sit in open-mouthed wonder as we witness how the captains of these ships bartered with African kings over their "cargo." We see the ravages of disease on both slavers and slaves alike. And we quickly understand how the sale of human beings degrades everyone involved, from the merchants to the government to the Africans. The author even takes time out of his busy schedule to show how the English drove a wedge between Indian tribes in their quest to acquire territory in North America. Every negative aspect of Atlantic history--the class issues, slavery, territorial ambition, unrestricted trade, greed, murder, and torture--appear in this book in intricate and often nauseating detail. Don't come into this book expecting a joyful experience. The themes in "Sacred Hunger" are serious business, and Unsworth treats them as such.
Without a doubt, the prose work is the best element of the book. Sentences spark and pop off the page as Unsworth effortlessly captures the tones and rhythms of eighteenth century speech. Whether he's writing dialogue that comes out of the mouths of upper class English elites or the singsong slang of the sailors, the effect is always totally believable. Heck, he even pulls off Pidgin English in the latter part of the book! So excellent is the prose that it's easy to overlook the deep thematic structures of the story. Don't forget that you're reading a narrative that attempts to examine the struggle between unfettered capitalism on the one hand and utopian socialism on the other. A deep pessimism about free markets seems to run throughout the book, which I don't necessarily agree with, but at the same time Unsworth doesn't reject that form of social organization entirely. I don't want to spoil the conclusion for you, but it's obvious at the end that the author recognizes that socialism isn't all its cracked up to be either. No matter what your position is regarding political organization, this book will definitely make you challenge your dearly held convictions. If you seek a more challenging theme than the rather obvious capitalism/socialism duality, try to identify each character's "sacred hunger."
Speaking of the conclusion (which I still won't spoil), did anyone else wonder about the character's sudden questioning of everything he held dear up to that point? I know I did. An individual this single-minded and...well...evil most likely wouldn't possess the mental faculties necessary to examine his motivations. I'll grant that this ending helped take some of the gruesome edges off the story, and it is poignant in its own way, but it just doesn't make much sense. Perhaps Unsworth wanted to leave his readers with a glimmer of hope that exploitation could give way to compassion and introspection. Whatever the case, pick up this book when you get a chance and follow the brass button. You won't be disappointed.
No one, it seems, is blameless in the slave trade. Not the sailors forced into service and treated, in some cases, as cruelly as the human cargo. Not the Africans who sell their captured countrymen for beads and muskets. Not the English, whose hunger for worthless and harmful sugar fuels their hunger for an inhuman trade in humanity. Not Matthew Paris, who, despite his distaste for cruelty and injustice, is complicit in the slave trade. He examines the Africans brought on board to ensure that they are healthy enough to survive the journey so they can be resold.
It's clear from the beginning of the novel that nothing good will ultimately come of all this. How could it? But for a brief time there is hope A Paradise found. A Paradise lost.
Barry Unsworth's view of human nature may be on target. It may be the way things were and are and always will be, in one way or another. But there's no joy in reading about it.