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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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1,142247,160 (4.07)200
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: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (BIzard)
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Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Somehow, even though this is about a difficult topic (the slave trade) and is very long (over 600 pages); I found it a relatively easy book to read. Unsworth is such a good story-teller that I just kept wanting to turn the pages. So basically, this is a sea-faring tale with a deeper, darker message. One of the things we see in the book is how the slave trade could continue because many really did not see others as fully human.

The book centers on a slave ship, “The Liverpool Merchant” and two cousins, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris. Kemp is the son of the ship’s owner. Paris, who is a doctor, goes with the ship as a physician.

Kemp is a difficult, and not very likeable character. We see him struggling with ambition, with finding his place in a world governed by class and money. He is really not very nice at all to women, and in fact does not seem to have compassion for anyone other than himself.

Paris takes the job on the ship because he is in a difficult time in his own life, and wants something to take him away from that. He finds himself in the position of ministering to physical needs of an abused crew (who were basically kidnapped to serve on the ship) and the slaves. He has little power to change things, and struggles with his own culpability.

The book is full of interesting characters and plot twists and turns. It left me with lots to think about. The book careened to a difficult ending, and left one with the question of whether pockets of joy and community can redeem a life that is otherwise filled with oppression and suffering. An interesting question, I don’t have an answer. ( )
1 vote banjo123 | Jan 23, 2016 |
From the book jacket: A stunning and engrossing exploration of power, domination, and greed. Filled with the “sacred hunger” to expand its empire and its profits, England entered fully into the slave trade and spread the trade throughout its colonies. This book, which won the Man Booker Award in 1992, follows the failing fortunes of William Kemp, a merchant pinning his last chance to a slave ship; his son who needs a fortune because he is in love with an upper-class woman; and his nephew who sails on the ship as its doctor because he has lost all he has loved. The voyage meets its demise, [and] the sailors and slaves set up a secret, utopian society in the wilderness of Flordia, only to await the vengeance of the single-minded, young Kemp.

My reactions
This is an epic story covering a time period from 1752 – 1765. There are two distinct, but interrelated story lines – that of Erasmus Kemp (son of William Kemp) and that of Mathew Paris (Kemp’s nephew, who sails as the ship’s doctor). Frankly Mathew’s story saved the book. I was bored to tears with much of the plot involving Erasmus. I could not care about his pursuit of Sarah, or his attempts to ingratiate himself with her by “acting” in the play. For me, he came across as a really unlikeable character – self-centered and bent on revenge.

Mathew’s story, on the other hand, is very interesting. His background is intriguing (we learn early that he has just been released from prison), his natural inclinations are in contrast to the rough crew men and Captain of the Liverpool Merchant. Although it was difficult to read the brutally graphic depictions of the life aboard the ship (particularly the treatment of the slaves), I felt it helped to set up Mathew’s motivations for the decisions and actions he ultimately took. I found myself totally engrossed in this story line and irritated every time I had to slog through the counterpoint of Erasmus’s tale.

The “utopian” society the sailors and slaves tried to develop once they arrived in the Florida wilderness had several surprises. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways in which they formed their society, the rules they put in place, their methods of self-government, their decisions on justice, and the ways in which they also succumbed to the “sacred hunger” for power and possessions. I wish Unsworth had spent more time on the “Paradise” – that’s a book I would love to read!

Finally I must confess I struggled with how to rate the book. I had a hard time getting into it because of the early emphasis on Erasmus story and my dislike for him as a character. Still I appreciated the writing and was going to give it 3.5 stars. But then I got to the ending and the confrontation and soul-searching that occurred there made me see the entire book in a slightly different light. So I decided to give it 4 stars. There is much to think about in this novel; great book for a book group discussion!
( )
  BookConcierge | Jan 13, 2016 |
It is a pleasure to begin my year's reading with such a memorable and worthy book. It's essentially the story of two cousins but Matthew Paris takes the lead early in the book because he is the one on his uncle's slave trading ship, Liverpool Merchant. Matthew has recently lost everything and takes the job as ship's doctor to try and forget the death of his wife and infant son and his recent incarceration for an unjust reason. Justice is a big theme in the book. Cousin Erasmus is looking for his own kind of justice to avenge his father, while Matthew is thrown into a situation where he can live in harmony with other oppressed individuals.

There are so many vivid scenes involving the slave trade and its degradation, that reading it is sometimes painful. But the pain is offset by the flutter of hope as compassion is awakened. This is a fascinating historical novel of greed and corruption with a big cast of characters of all types and degrees of good and evil. The setting moves from England to Africa to the shores of America. I highly respect Unsworth's ability to manage a novel of this scope and to tell a harrowing story with such beautiful language. it was a deserving winner of the Booker Prize in 1992 ( )
5 vote Donna828 | Jan 4, 2016 |
I think this book did a very good job of bringing home the disgusting conditions on-board a slave vessel. Unsworth had clearly done a lot of research as the book had a rich seam of information running through it. I felt the characters were sufficiently developed to be believable. The only thing that lets the book down is the second part; I do not feel it follows from the first book. It feels as if the author was rushed or could not think of an ending. ( )
  martensgirl | Dec 15, 2014 |
I can't say that I enjoyed reading this book. But I did find it fascinating, enlightening, wonderfully written and thought provoking. The title refers to the hunger for profit and societal status that is evidently engrained in human beings-- at least some of us, maybe most of us-- and the cost of this hunger to the rest of humanity. Set in the mid-18th century, the two central characters are English cousins. Erasmus Kemp is the son of an ambitious merchant whose hopes for financial redemption lie in a slave ship that he is backing. Erasmus is a materialistic, self-centered young man who is focused only on his own aggrandizement. He hates his cousin Matthew Paris, who is everything Erasmus is not. Paris is a doctor, an intellectual, and a progressive thinker. He's been imprisoned for publishing his heretical views on evolution, and while he was being humiliated and incarcerated his beloved wife and unborn child died. He's guilt-ridden and doesn't much care about his future, which is why he agrees to become the physician on the slave ship his uncle owns.

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. ( )
2 vote DonnaCallea | Nov 29, 2014 |
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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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