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Sacred Hunger

(Sacred Hunger #1)

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  5,989 ratings  ·  510 reviews
A sweeping novel of men's greed in the slave trade, from the author of Pascali's Island. It is 1752, and The Liverpool Merchant has picked up its human cargo in Africa and is headed for America. Disease soon spreads, forcing the captain to take drastic measures that soon lead to a mutinous rebellion.
Hardcover, 640 pages
Published June 1st 1992 by Doubleday (first published 1992)
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Average rating 4.10  · 
Rating details
 ·  5,989 ratings  ·  510 reviews

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Violet wells
Another bloated Booker prize winner. Shared the prize with the infinitely more sophisticated and innovative The English Patient. Another baffling decision on the part of the judges. The English Patient is a torchbearer of how nimble and ironically self-regarding historical fiction will become in the 21st century - I'm thinking of Hilary Mantel and David Mitchell.

This on the other hand, is old school historical fiction. No irony, no mischief, no architectural sleights of hand. Unsworth goes for
Mar 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: brits

Historical novels are "a somewhat gimcrack genre not exactly jammed with greatness" according to James Wood in the New Yorker. (Where he is, however, exceeding polite to Ms Mantel.)

I can only imagine that this is one of those rarities whose existence he grudgingly allows. It is magnificent. It was magnificent the first time I read it all those years ago when it shared the Booker prize with The English Patient, and it retains its magnificence now.

A re-read is always a new experience: this time
Dec 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In 1992 the Man Booker prize was shared for the first time. Now everybody remembers “The English Patient” but fewer remember the book that tied with it, which is a shame because it is a wonderful book.

Sacred Hunger opens with Erasmus Kemp’s father showing him the construction of his ship, the LIVERPOOL MERCHANT. His father loves watching over the building of the ship and explaining techniques and parts to his son. However, due to the war with France, and the economy, his father is badly in debt,
Paul Bryant
Sep 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
Here's another 5 star novel I never reviewed. Barry Unsworth was an English guy, son of a miner (something he has in common with DH Lawrence, and more importantly, with me). He knocked out all kinds of interesting novels and this is a real pearl, all about slavery, so of course it's a historical horror story. In the middle of the story there's a ship that finds itself randomly beached on the coast of pre-Miami Florida and the slaves and sailors then get busy and create for themselves a nearly ...more
Such an unsettling book. One that demanded more from my senses, emotions, thoughts than I ever expected it would. It preoccupied me, it made me feel sick, it taught me, it even entertained me at times, but rarely. It was not that kind of book, not the kind you can read for entertainment or enlightment alone. Rather it is a book that demands, that contorts, that expands and contracts your heart til it cracks. A book where the author demands the reader pay the price of turning the page.

In Ethan
Mar 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and earnest piece of historical fiction. It doesn't possess the layered ironies of some of Unsworth's other work, and I did miss that, but overall, it's very well done.
Sep 06, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review was written in the late nineties (for my eyes only), and it was buried in amongst my things until recently when I uncovered the journal in which it was written. I have transcribed it verbatim from all those years ago (although square brackets may indicate some additional information for the sake of readability or some sort of commentary from now). This is one of my lost reviews.

"...the sky took on a look of readiness for the dark, that depthless clarity which is no colour and the
This book is about England and her role in the slave trade. It is also about how men and women thought in the mid-1700s, how they viewed justice and freedom and success, and those of the opposite sex. In its accurate depiction of these times, it is an excellent work of historical fiction.

Here follows a quote from chapter 40, so you can judge how you may react. It is a diary entry written by Paris, the surgeon on the Liverpool Merchant slave ship:
April 26: I continue, in spite of these terrible
I once had a dream where I saw myself in a mirror and looked myself directly in the eyes. It was one of the most disconcerting dreams I've ever had since most of my dreams aren't quite that direct.

Reading this book gave me a similar feeling. Unsworth wrote not just about slaves on a slave ship. He wrote about humans looking me, another human, directly in the eyes. I felt the same thing that I felt in that dream.

And that's amazing.

This book broke my heart.
Jan 18, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1992
"Soon after midnight the first of the land breeze began making along the river and Thurso ordered sail to be got up and all to be made ready for purchasing anchor. At two they weighed an got out to sea, the wind by this time giving a good offing. In the ocver of darkness, as quietly as possible, the Liverpool Merchant began to steer a course south-eastward. but when the ship met the deep sea well, the rhythm of her movement changed and the people in the cramped and fetid darkness of the hold, ...more
Nov 01, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: man-booker-prize
After reading Sacred Hunger, I've now made it half way through the fifty-three novels that make up the Man Booker Prize winners. Many five star books in the mix and some four star books like this one.

This largely historical novel has a lot going for it, if you can get past a painfully slow middle of the book. I think a 600+ page tome is too fat for the story told here. Sacred Hunger perhaps would have been five star material if presented as a short novel of 200 to 300 pages.

The story is set in
Mar 27, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: e-audible
Sacred Hunger was a 1992 Booker Prize winner. This epic tale is compelling even though it isn’t pared down, which can be off putting for me. Except for Matthew Paris, a physician aboard the slave ship, most of the main characters are detestable…mostly because they viewed the horror of buying and selling Africans as a great way to achieve that “sacred hunger”…that hunger for profit and societal status that is engrained in some of our fellow men. The timeline is the 18th century when slave trading ...more

(This is me, doing cartwheels, because I finally finished the thing! The chap was a bit long-winded on this one.) Review to follow. But it may take me as long to get to a review, as it did to read it.
Nancy Oakes
(don't worry: no spoilers here)

I would recommend it to anyone, but a) it is a difficult read sometimes, both in terms of subject matter & in terms of readability. A lot of the book has the characters speaking in a "pidgin" English, a necessity (imho) to the story at times. This was slow going but at least for me, didn't detract from the reading experience. I could see where some readers may find it difficult and off-putting; b) it's definitely not what I call a "fast-food" have to
I can't do justice to this one without reading it again, a worthy Booker winner and a fine book.
Laura Leaney
Sep 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a beautiful book about the contradictory nature of man: his nobility, his violent aggression, his gross appetites, his generosity, his drive for power and dominance, and his humility. All is explored in epic scale through the journey of a slave ship, The Liverpool Merchant, as it makes its befouled way along the trans-Atlantic triangular route mapped by previous “traders.” Sugar, tea, trinkets for human beings. Huge profits on human flesh. History books can give you the facts, but Barry ...more
060717: took a few days to think of this. the two cousins followed in alternating plots are perhaps representatives of the English society of their times: one cousin rather blinkered, focused on wealth and power and convinced of his correctness despite the reality of any other, such as his fiancée, later wife. the other cousin is close to admirable and modern in his role as doctor but also, despite his ideals, enables the 'sacred hunger' of the slave trade...

this is a historical novel such as i
Read By RodKelly
I teetered between 1 and 2 stars for this Booker Prize winner. The fact of its winning has no effect on my thinking that the book isn't all that great. The problem with so many works of historical fiction is the tendency of authors to show off their exhaustive research by dumping swaths of information into the narrative that ultimately makes the story dusty and stale.

The big message of the story is pretty straightforward: the slave trade being written off as a means to an end, a pursuit of
Sep 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was one of the best books I have ever read. Beautiful, rich, full of adventure and sadness. Set in the mid 1700's it tracks the final business venture (a slave ship) of a well to do Liverpudlian merchant. The melancholy tone of the book works extremely well with the cruel methodical life aboard a slave ship. This is set against the merchants family back in Liverpool. Although written in third person, Sacred Hunger is told mainly from the viewpoint of the ships surgeon who happens to be the ...more
I'm not sure why I didn't enjoy this more than I did. The writing was uniformly excellent and the story made great insights into human relationships and power.

I think it may have been timing, and it may have just been me. But as much as I could appreciate the quality of the novel I had a hard time getting back to it after putting it down. In fact, I read about 200 pages today in a sprint because I wanted to finish it before I completely lost interest.
Dr. Milmon
Jul 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I just finished this book this morning after spending the last week or two completely engrossed in it. I was moved and disturbed on so many levels that I don't think I'm even ready to talk about yet. Maybe I need to let it "marinate" for a few days before I try to write a review. Like so many others I picked this book up after hearing a review of it on NPR. That was two years ago! And it has sat on my bookshelf all this time. I'm a believer that things come into our lives sometimes only when ...more
Book Concierge
From the book jacket: A stunning and engrossing exploration of power, domination, and greed. Filled with the “sacred hunger” to expand its empire and its profits, England entered fully into the slave trade and spread the trade throughout its colonies. This book, which won the Man Booker Award in 1992, follows the failing fortunes of William Kemp, a merchant pinning his last chance to a slave ship; his son who needs a fortune because he is in love with an upper-class woman; and his nephew who ...more
Apr 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
magisterial historical fiction of triangle trade, liverpool with guns, fabric, and beads to gold coast for slaves to jamaica to sell slaves and get sugar, back to liverpool. novel takes place 1750's-1760's. englishmen are firm in their belief that making a profit was not only virtuous, but a sign that god and your govt was smiling on you. if for any reason either one somehow impinged on you making a profit well then they were just wrong wrong wrong (even god i guess) so as in ghosh's novels of ...more
Aug 24, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a very good novel about the slave trade, but what takes it beyond simply a retelling of the brutality of capturing and buying slaves is the on-board rebellion that occurs during the Middle Passage and the makeshift society that the seamen and slaves fashion afterward.
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sacred Hunger is one of those books that stays on your mind long after you’ve finished it. Since Unsworth won the Pulitzer for this book I expected a lot and I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is lovely and the philosophy is complicated and thought provoking. It’s set in the mid eighteenth century. It’s about an English merchant who attempts to make a lot of money by purchasing trapped African people and sell them in the English colonies.

Most of the action is nightmarish. The main characters are
Courtney H.
Mar 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bookers, favorites
Sacred Hunger is an astounding novel. It is the best book I’ve read in a long time; it is also, by far, the most devastating (which is saying something, given some of the Bookers I’ve read recently – Schindler’s Ark and The Bone People coming to mind). I have been reluctant to write this review because I’ve found it difficult to review books that I love, and Sacred Hunger falls into that category. I wasn’t sure that I’d find another Booker that I love quite as much as The Remains of the Day and ...more
Aug 05, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a rich and detailed account on life on a slave trader ship. Despite it's length, the pages flowed effortlessly. Some reviewers have said that they found the dialect and pidgin language a hindrance, but I found it added rather than detracted. The sacred hunger is the search to make money at all costs. Slavery was (is) a terrible part of our collective consciousness. The details and description and the contrast to life as an affluent merchant in late eighteenth century Britain are as you ...more
Jan 23, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's for books such as this that I love reading. One of the most fully realized re-creations of another time and place I've ever come across, coupled with sharply delineated characters, primary and secondary, I have to say this is among the best books I've ever read. Not only does it deal with thought-provoking matters related to morality, greed, and justice, but it is also highly entertaining. Virtually every page is artfully crafted and a joy to read.

The fact that I came upon it during an
Jennifer (the_pumpkin_reads)
I think what saved this book was that I listened to it in audio and I liked the voice of the reader.

It was incredibly difficult to listen to some parts of the slavery, and some characters were unlikeable to the point of wanting to throw the book off of a cliff, but if its intent was to make me feel something.. It did.

3 stars.
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Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham, and he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, B.A., 1951.

From 1951-53, in the British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, he served and became second lieutenant.

A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British

Other books in the series

Sacred Hunger (2 books)
  • The Quality of Mercy (Sacred Hunger, #2)
“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way” 27 likes
“Money is sacred as everyone knows... So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.” 12 likes
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