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Sacred Hunger

(Book #1 in the Sacred Hunger Series)

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This description may be from another edition of this product. Winner of the Booker Prize Liverpool, 1752. William Kemp has lost a fortune in cotton speculation, and must recoup his losses if his son is to marry the wealthy woman whom he loves. His last resort is...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings


When I had the opportunity to read Barry Unsworth's "Sacred Hunger," I jumped at the chance, and not because this author won the Booker Prize. I didn't know a thing about him, had never heard of him, and couldn't have cared if he had won any prize related to writing. All I knew was that I could receive credit for a directed readings class at my university for reading the novel. The topic I was working on at the time concerned Atlantic history, a hot area of research for historians, and most of the books I read up to this point were lengthy, scholarly works full of footnotes and massive bibliographies. So when my professor suggested the idea of a novel covering many of the same themes, I readily accepted. Who wouldn't take a break from the tedium of academia? I quickly discovered that Unsworth's book involved a bit of work to get through. This novel isn't a mass-market paperback type read, not by a long shot. It's an incredibly well researched, multilayered piece of historical fiction that manages to incorporate nearly every aspect of the slave trade while maintaining a level of prose that would make Charles Dickens stand up and applaud. "Sacred Hunger" follows many characters throughout its 600 plus pages, from lowly sailors to venture capitalists to slaves to dozens of other major and minor characters. The overarching storyline involves one William Kemp, a wealthy English cotton merchant currently down on his luck, and his effort to reap a quick profit from the slave trade circa 1750. He commissions the building of a vessel for just such a purpose, hires a bellicose tar by the name of Saul Thurso to helm the ship, and stakes his entire fortune on its success. He even enlists his nephew Matthew Paris, a physician who spent time in prison for challenging church dogma, to serve as the ship's doctor. The book flip flops back and forth from the travails of the slave voyage to the adventures of William's son Erasmus, a dour young capitalist whose plans revolve around marrying the daughter of a wealthy businessman and expanding his own family's holdings once his father passes on. Erasmus's plans come to naught when the slave ship disappears somewhere in the Caribbean, leading to a series of events that take many years to unravel. It takes that long to ascertain that Thurso's ship didn't just disappear into thin air, but was hijacked through a mutiny involving slaves, shipmates, and Matthew Paris. Unsworth spares no effort to convey to the reader a sense of actually witnessing the slave trade up close and personal. We learn of the vile techniques used to impress hapless sailors into maritime service through the stories of unfortunate wretches such as Billy Blair and the fiddle player Michael Sullivan. The book shows us the utter brutality inflicted by Thurso and his subordinates on both slaves and the crew. We sit in open-mouthed wonder as we witness how the captains of these ships bartered with African kings over their "cargo." We see the ravages of

The brass button

Make no mistake about it, reading Sacred Hunger is a significant undertaking -- both in terms of the impact this complex and epic story will have on you and because of the time and concentration it will take to navigate the book's more than 600 pages. That significance is something to savor.I will avoid the cliché of saying that the story "has it all," but Sacred Hunger does come close to that. There's the adventure of a band of men moving between three continents and pushed until they snapped and yet optimistically deciding to create what they saw as a kind of utopia, there is an examination of the cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on each other, the story includes an accurate lesson in a period of history and its economics and geography, a touching love story, a metaphor for modern times. Curiously, the pages also include the story of a small brass button. I still haven't decided what the button represents, but I did note that it is the only thing in the story that manages to survive all the kinds of hell the length of the story includes, changing hands at least six times between the beginning of the book and its final pages and yet it ends up no worse off.The title of this volume refers to its grandest theme, the desire that drives men to extreme action. It is in this aspect that the book shines brightest, as the term is defined differently but compellingly for each of the main characters, especially the two main characters, cousins Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris.There is a sacred hunger in almost all of the less central characters as well, in Michael Sullivan (the fiddle player who longed to be treated like a man ... and only person to own the brass button twice), in Billy Blair (who was robbed of his money and who ended up a judge), in Saul Thurso (the captain who never failed his owners), even in many of the slaves and the other seamen forced into service, and in the soldiers camped in Florida and Africa. Therein lies one of the potential stumbling blocks for readers of Sacred Hunger: it includes a great many characters and to really understand the book it is imperative to remember who came from where and which character has a problem with or a debt to whom. Most of the crew is introduced starting with chapter 12, and I found myself referring back to that part of the book often to remember the particulars of certain figures. Later, it is also important to remember the characteristics of different African tribes involved in the story.There are few female characters in the book, and those who do appear can seem unconvincing compared to the complex representations of many of the men. Similarly, I found myself wishing I knew much more about the artist and philosopher Delblanc, who comes into the story late but who plays an absolutely key role. If I have a criticism of the book it is the way Delblanc is developed.But I use the conditional on that point because I am not sure if I do indeed have a criticism of the book. It is easy to s

The Hunger That Never Dies

This is one of the most painful books I have ever read, and my action of mailing copies to my closest friends is both an action of great friendship and great sadism. This story of the slave-trade and a new society formed after one slave-ship escapes -- through sickness, mutiny, opportunity -- pains as much as it pleases. Characters we live with and love are hunted down by characters who see them only as animals. We see both societies that can come about, only to face the fact that they will not be permitted to exist -- will be hunted mercilessly.And from the very beginning of the book, we know that events will come to a very bad end, that a paradise found will be recalled only by a pathetic old man (who we later know in his youth) whose strange stories tell us, before the book unfolds, that paradise will be lost -- *is* lost before it is even found. As for the irony of the title, *Sacred Hunger* seems to be the insatiable imperialistic drive towards hierarchy according to skin color, slavery, world expansion. It is small consolation that their seems no curbing of that voracious hunger.I find that once I send this book to a friend, I follow up to make sure it's been read. Like Coleridge's wedding guest, I need to impart this story. I lurk near the wedding guests, ready to leap out with the tale.It reached my soul, and may yours.

Magnificently compelling, beautifully drawn

Barry Unsworth's novel Sacred Hunger is an exquisitely crafted tale of commerce and corruption set in 18th century England, at the heart of which lies the tension between the moral characters of two cousins. Erasmus Kemp is the intense, arrogant son of a slave ship owner, who holds the prevailing opinion of the day that the lawful accumulation of wealth is the only way a man should live his life. Mathew Paris is the ship's doctor recently rescued from prison by his uncle for publishing blasphemous and seditious views on evolution. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of the Liverpool Merchant's ill-fated voyage to Africa to buy slaves, and the mutiny that follows.Paris is a thoughtful and troubled man whose constant battle against pride enriches him with a humanity and compassion that are beyond his cousin's reach or understanding. The respective self awareness of the two characters is fascinating: while Kemp has no conscious doubt whatsoever that right is on his side, Paris is plagued by self-doubt and guilt at his wife's death while he was in prison. Kemp's hatred for Paris is a deep-rooted one, possibly founded on the sub-conscious knowledge that it is in fact his cousin who is the better man, despite what society would have him believe. Kemp possesses power and wealth, but these aren't enough to combat the monomania of his hatred for Paris and its tragic consequences. Unsworth portrays vividly the moral bankruptcy that festers at the heart of 18th century English society, where the kidnapping and trading of human beings is seen as a lawful enterprise while the mere expression of views contrary to the current religious ones is seen as unlawful and pernicious. Sacred Hunger attempts a formidable examination of human nature and what man can be driven to inflict on man for the sake of power and wealth, and the author succeeds in what he sets out to do with admirable assurance. The quality of Unworth's prose is astonishing. He writes with an economy and grace that no other contemporary author (that I know of) can match. The period detail is beautifully drawn and the style spare and evocative. Sacred Hunger is a magnificent book: it really does rival the great Victorian novels in terms of its scope of ambition, moral exploration, convincing characterisation and marvellous scene setting. I cannot believe that there has been a better historical novel published in the last twenty years.


I read this book about three years ago, and some of the passages are still etched vividly in my mind. The writing in amazingly lush. As some reviewers have already pointed out, there is a great deal of detail in some of the passages which, in lesser hands, could be terribly boring (Like in Millhauser's "Martin Dressler"). But here, they are magical. This is one of the few books where I would actually stop periodically to re-read the previous couple of pages just to savor the writing once again. Unsworth is a gifted writer who paints luxurious pictures on every page. The passages about crossing the ocean in the hold of a slave ship are harrowing.But this book succeeds because of more than just good writing. The plot is complex and compelling, and the characters are entirely real. I'm normally not a fan of historical fiction, but this one is a real winner.
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