Suzan's Reviews > Sacred Hunger

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
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's review
Feb 27, 2011

really liked it
Read in January, 2011

The“sacred hunger” of the title is the desire to expand empire and profits and to accumulate vast wealth no matter the cost to personal integrity or the well-being of others. Set in the mid 18th century, this Booker Prize winning novel is a chronicle of the slave trade, the most compelling I have ever read.
Hoping to recoup disastrous financial losses, businessman William Kemp’s last desperate throw of the dice is his newly built ship Liverpool Merchant, destined for the slave trade. Kemp is optimistic that he can turn such a profit in one voyage, his troubles will all be over. Captain Saul Thurso agrees. He prides himself on never having failed his employers, and hopes to make this, his last voyage, most profitable for himself as well as Kemp.
Matthew Paris, recently released from prison having served a sentence for challenging church beliefs , signs on to his uncle’s newly built slave ship as ship’s doctor. At the start of the voyage, Paris has no particular feelings about the trade one way or the other. But as the story and the voyage, first to Africa to acquire slaves then on toward the Caribbean to sell them unfolds in harrowing detail, Paris is revolted by the inhumanity and suffering. He plays a key role in the mutiny that follows a horrific command by the captain.
The remainder of the book is the story of what happens to the mutineers and slaves who commandeer the ship and beach her in a remote area of South Florida where they establish a Utopian colony, and the determination of Kemp’s son Erasmus to hunt them down and punish them, especially his detested cousin Matthew.
Unsworth has a wonderful ear for dialogue, a talent for narrative and his scrupulous attention to detail almost had me believing that I could build a ship and sail it myself, following his instructions. The storytelling here is masterful, the themes huge, the writing brilliant. Sure to be on my “top reads” for 2011.
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