SACRED HUNGER. (1992). Barry Unsworth. *****.
This was recommended to me by a friend at the local library. Until then, I hadn’t heard of either the book or the author. On the cover of this American edition, it had a tasteful sticker that said: “Winner of the 1992 Booker Prize for Fiction.” I was even further embaressed. I looked it up, and, sure enough it was a winner, but it shared the prize with “The English Patient.” That book took America by storm, and was followed by an excellent film adaptation. This novel got lost in the shuffle. When the book was delivered, they needed a fork lift. It is over 600 pages long (630 in my edition). There are three things that usually deter me from reading a book: 1) The book has more than 400 pages; 2) The book is about life on the sea and contains all the terms that I don’t know about boats and stuff – to the point where I have to keep a schematic drawing of an 18th century sailing ship in front of me with all the parts labeled, and, 3) The book contains lots of French. I don’t have much French (I have German, Italian, and Spanish), other than merci, oui, non, and Jeanne D’Arc (I always tell people that that means that the bulb is burned out in the Men’s Room.) This book doesn’t have a lot of French in it, but it fails the first two. In any event, I started it and found myself swept up in its epic tale. It is set in the mid-18th century, and is about (mostly) the slave trade as practiced by a Liverpool merchant, William Kemp. He gets into this business because there are hugh profits to be made. The usual route is that a ship sets off for Africa, where slaves are purchased by trade for guns – this from their own leaders. Then the ship sets off for The New World, where the slaves are sold (traded) for sugar – a lively item of trade in England. This particular ship, however, suffers a mutiny along the way, and ends up on Florida’s East Coast – a territory then owned by the Spanish. The description of the conditions aboard ship for the slaves is incredible. The squalor and filth and treatment of the slaves cannot be imagined. Death was common among the captives, and their living conditions in the hold as described were unbelievable. I can’t say much about the plot without giving the story away, but there is also a severe clash of wills between the ship’s surgeon and the ship’s owner’s son that pervades the voyage. In spite of my own personal bias, this is still a very, very good book. If the author could have pared it down to 300 pages or so and set the action on a train, it would be a great book. Highly recommended.