- 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: 107 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #685,944 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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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.
When asked what Sacred Hunger is about and answering that the drama takes place on a slave ship, understandably there was some reluctance. After all, could there be a more disturbing topic? We all have a sense of the truly ghastly conditions on board those vessels of despair, so therefore, one might ask, what more do we need to know? Plenty, as it turns out.
Unsworth puts us in the mind of the merchant who builds the ship and sets out on this endeavor. Therein lies the dramatic tension, coupled with a growing awareness of the genuine ability we share as human beings to justify almost anything. It was perfectly legal at the time and a good business; the reality of conditions on board were an entirely different matter. They were to set sail from England carrying trade goods which would enable them to acquire slaves. They would then pick up the cargo in Africa, that's right cargo, and deliver the said goods to Jamaica. The plan was to sell the slaves there, in exchange for sugar and rum. They would then sail back to England with a ship full of the spoils of free labor, sell the goods and make a tidy sum in the process.
Because few sailors would work on slave ships they were often "Shanghaied" into service, making their experience not much better, except for the fact that they would at least earn a wage. Conditions on board were described with such clarity that one simply comes away with a sense of awe at the descriptive powers inherent in Barry Unsworth's work. Each morning the slaves would be brought up on deck, with shackles clanging, and made to dance to the fiddle, a practice widely employed, in order to keep them fit. The strength of this marvelous book lies in the author's power to create an inescapable mood.
Here is an excerpt from page 233:
"The moon was high and clear of cloud, astoundingly radiant, eclipsing the stars. Moonlight gleamed in a sheet of silver over the marshes and flats of mud they had crossed to come here, so cluttered and tawdry by day, all unified and resplendent now as if lying under some moment of blessing. And for a moment this transforming moonlight was confused in Paris's mind with the sunlight of earlier, the form of the woman edged with fire against the bars. 'It is not even true that I want to die,' he said, and with this ultimate confession he saw the moonlit levels run together and glimmer, as if washed in some thin solution of silver, and then blur to bright webs, as the tears, held long in check, came freely now to his eyes,"
The author, described as slim and elegant, was born in Wingate, England to a family of miners. He lived in Tuscany in later years, devoting his time to writing. I was shocked to learn that he left this world recently, on the same day as fellow writer Ray Bradbury, June 5, 2012 whose passing captured the bulk of the press releases of the day. Was he fated to be paired with others? If so, it is of little consequence. His writing will find its place among the greats of our time, and it will live on.
If writing itself is a journey, then tales of an epic voyage that goes badly wrong, as if ill fated from the start, take their place among the greatest stories ever told. So it is with Sacred Hunger. Place this novel along side Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; it is that good.