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Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
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Sacred Hunger (original 1992; edition 2008)

by Barry Unsworth

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1,055187,963 (4.06)132
Member:PaulCranswick
Title:Sacred Hunger
Authors:Barry Unsworth
Info:Penguin (2008), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 640 pages
Collections:Your library, Modern Fiction
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Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (1992)

  1. 00
    Middle Passage by Charles Johnson (rebeccanyc)
    rebeccanyc: While Middle Passage is a complex, philosophical, and psychological look not only at the slave trade but also at the African-American experience more broadly, Sacred Hunger, which also focuses on the slave trade, is a more straightforward historical novel.… (more)
  2. 00
    Rough Crossings by Simon Schama (BIzard)
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Barry Unsworth set himself a big task in writing this book, because he tries to encompass everything about the so-called triangular trade in the mid-18th century in one novel: from the making of the slave-carrying ships to the economics behind the trade, from the way crew members were obtained for the ship and the relationships among them to the practices of buying Africans from other Africans and Europeans, from the methods of keeping order on the ship to the ideals of racial equality, from personal relationships to finding one's identity.

The story begins in 1752 as businessman William Kemp is having a slave ship built, the Liverpool Merchant, a ship that will travel to the coast of Africa under Captain Thurso and his first mate Barton, along with Kemp's disgraced nephew, Matthew Paris, as the ship's doctor. There, they will sell English textiles, liquor, and other goods to fill the ship with African slaves, travel to Jamaica where they will exchange the slaves for sugar, and travel from there back to England. In the meantime, Kemp's grown son, Erasmus, is acting, not very adeptly, in a play organized by the brother of the young woman he is in love with; Erasmus has always disliked Paris, and this will become a conflict that runs through the book. Eventually, the ship obtains its crew and sets off to Africa, where horrific scenes of buying human beings alternate with horrific interactions among the crew on the ship and between them and the Africans brought on board. After a variety of scenes between Thurso and the Africans and Europeans selling slaves, the ship sets sail for Jamaica, with an unusual artist onboard as a paying passenger. But all does not go smoothly. The second part of the story takes place 12 years later. Changes have happened in the Kemp family, and Erasmus has become a powerful businessman himself. He sets out on a mission to find out what happened to the Liverpool Merchant, which never returned to port, traveling to Florida after he learns about a community of black and white people living together in the wilds of the Florida keys.

Several themes run through this novel. There is the "sacred hunger" for money and financial success, and how this corrupts people. There is the quest for identity and feeling comfortable in one's own skin. There is the question of morality: how can human beings buy other human beings and treat them as less than human? There is personal resentment and how this leads to lifetime of a desire for revenge. There is even science: the doctor, Paris, has been translating (from Latin) Harvey's treatise on circulation and the heart and had been imprisoned in England for questioning the church's view on evolution based on fossils he had collected. And there is a view of an attempt at utopia, the relationships between white people and black people who had been enslaved and who came from a variety of tribes, and the challenges the people face. And of course there is racism, in a variety of forms.

This is an ambitious historical novel, and it doesn't completely work. With Unsworth's Morality Play, I never doubted for a moment that I was in 14th century England. With this novel, while Unsworth brilliantly recreates the sights and sounds and smells of England, the ship, Africa, and the Florida wilderness, and while he portrays vividly a variety of venal, weak, tormented, greedy, and power-hungry characters, there were many times when I felt he was showing the readers how much he knew about a lot of topics and taking a teaching, if not a preaching, role. The last section, and the ending, seemed a little as if he was writing a second novel and tacking it on to the first.

That said, however, Unsworth is a wonderful writer and this is a compelling, fascinating, and moving book despite its flaws.
8 vote rebeccanyc | Apr 16, 2014 |
4.5 ( )
  gaeta1 | Nov 9, 2013 |
Absolutely gutting. ( )
  nrmaharaj | Mar 28, 2013 |
Historical fiction, brings the 18th century slave trade spread throughout the English colonies to life. The sailors and slaves aboard a disease-infested ship mutiny and set up a refuge in the wilds of Florida. Avarice floats this boat, and William Kemp, a failing merchant, has a bent love interest he is trying to buy. Prepare to weep.
  keylawk | Dec 22, 2012 |
Going beyond the territory of the average historical novel, this raises question about the malleability of human nature. Great characters, a gripping story. ( )
  adzebill | Jul 19, 2012 |
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En route to America with a cargo of African slaves, the crew of the Liverpool Merchant, enraged at the captain's impotence in the face of disease, carry out a mutiny that pits two cousins against each other.

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W.W. Norton

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