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Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (1992) 630 p.

Sacred Hunger shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and I decided to read it after reading this blog article and feeling sorry for it. It’s a historical novel set in the 18th century and based around the Atlantic slave trade, following two main characters: Erasmus Kemp, the son of a wealthy Liverpool merchant who has just launched a new ship, and Matthew Paris, his cousin, who is assigned as the ship’s surgeon on her maiden voyage.punished

Paris is one of those characters in historical fiction who is a Good Man, conveniently decrying the brutality around him which 18th century society believes is perfectly normal and ordinary. He is recently released from prison, having been sent there for writing scientific treatises contradicting the Bible, and due to his wife’s death (partly his fault) he is depressed and nihilistic. The voyage stirs him back into discovering the beauty and purpose of life by subjecting him to even further brutality: the sadism of the ship’s captain, the fever and sickness he and the crew must contend with in Africa, and the appalling horror of kidnapping human beings by the hundreds, forcing them into disgusting conditions and hauling them across the ocean. Paris’ doubts and misgivings are reflected amongst the crew, many of whom were press-ganged in Liverpool and are thus slaves themselves, and as the ship approaches Jamaica, this conflict erupts – leading into the final third of the book, which I found a tad unbelievable.

The overall theme of the book is a condemnation of capitalism, the “sacred hunger” that drives the English to buy and sell slaves, and turn the African natives onto ultimately useless manufactured goods so that they will be eager to trade with the English and thus do all the dirty work in actually capturing and producing slaves. This is repeated later in the book with Native Americans.

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.

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