Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Length: 640 pages
About: 18thC English slavery excused for profiteering
Style: 3rd person
Where: England (Liverpool), At sea (Atlantic) and US (Florida)
When: Mid 18th Century
A blasphemous outcast, Matthew Paris boards the “Liverpool Merchant” as ship’s doctor as it embarks on a mercantile voyage in the slave trade. An illness breaks out among the slaves and crew
between Guinea and the West Indies, and slaves are ordered to be tossed overboard in order to claim the insurance. Illness gives rise to mutiny, the captain is killed, and, with Paris as one of the
leaders, the ship sails for Florida to establish an egalitarian, interracial society. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the loss of the ship has financially ruined its owner, Kemp, who hangs himself.
Twelve years later, upon hearing rumours of a utopian community of blacks and whites in Florida, Kemp’s son sets out for revenge.
’’She carried death for the cotton broker who owned her, or so at least his son believed. For Erasmus Kemp it was always to seem that the ship had killed his father, and the thought poisoned his
memories. Grief works its own perversions and betrayals; the shape of what we have lost is as subject to corruption as the mortal body, and Erasmus could never afterwards escape the idea that his
father had been scenting his own death that drab afternoon in the timber yard on the banks of the Mersey when, amid colours of mud and saffron, he had lowered himself rather awkwardly down to sniff
at the newly cut sections of mast for his ship. Not odours of embalmment, nothing sacramental; the reek of his own death.’’
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
Publishers Weekly, 6th January 1992 to see full review click here
Not so good:
I enjoyed Sacred Hunger quite a lot for a book of its page count and literary magnitude – I didn’t love it, but I was never reluctant to read it either. If I have an issue with it, it’s in the
lack of subtlety. There are quite a few scenes which are shining with contrived symbolism; it’s sort of the literary version of Oscar bait. As I said earlier, I also found the circumstances
surrounding the final third to be a bit much, and the character of Paris – while an excellent one – was a bit too conveniently liberal, even for a learned gentleman. On the whole, though, this was a
pretty decent book.
Grub Street 4th April 2011 for full review click
About the author
Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in Durham. He travelled extensively in Greece and Turkey during the 1960s, teaching at the Universities of Istanbul and Athens. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society
of Literature. Barry Unsworth lived in Umbria.
He died on 4th June 2012