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Sacred Hunger

Sacred Hunger

4.5 8
by Barry Unsworth

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Winner of the Booker Prize

A historical novel set in the eighteenth century, Sacred Hunger is a stunning, engrossing exploration of power, domination, and greed in the British Empire as it entered fully into the slave trade and spread it throughout its colonies. Barry Unsworth follows the failing fortunes of William Kemp, a merchant pinning his


Winner of the Booker Prize

A historical novel set in the eighteenth century, Sacred Hunger is a stunning, engrossing exploration of power, domination, and greed in the British Empire as it entered fully into the slave trade and spread it throughout its colonies. Barry Unsworth 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 sails on the ship as its doctor because he has lost all he has loved. The voyage meets its demise when disease spreads among the slaves and the captain's drastic response provokes a mutiny. Joining together, the sailors and the slaves set up a secret, utopian society in the wilderness of Florida, only to await the vengeance of the single-minded, young Kemp.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This vast, vividly realistic historical novel follows the crew of a slave-trading vessel from its Liverpool shipyard through days at anchor bartering human cargo on the Guinea Coast, then on beyond the slaver's disease-ridden and mutinous Middle Passage. With an epic ambition that seems suited to its 18th-century setting, Unsworth ( Stone Virgin ) takes on a big theme--greed, the animating ``sacred hunger'' of the title--but at the same time fills his huge canvas with the alternately fascinating and horrifying details of shipboard life, colonial plunder and power struggles, the London clubs of absentee sugar lords, even a pidgin Utopia created by slaves and seamen on unclaimed Florida coast. Deftly utilizing a flood of period detail, Unsworth has written a book whose stately pace, like the scope of its meditations, seems accurately to evoke the age. Tackling here a central perversity of our history--the keeping of slaves in a land where ``all men are created equal''--Unsworth illuminates the barbaric cruelty of slavery, as well as the subtler habits of politics and character that it creates. As intricate as it is immense, this masterwork rewards every turn of its 640 pages. (July) one with a continuing fascination for readers and authors alike--Unsworth illuminates its cruel ties and miscarriages, its floggings and murders, as well as the subtler habits of politics and character that it creates. As intricate as it is immense, this masterwork rewards every turn of its 640 pages.
Library Journal
With its graphic depiction of the 18th-century slave trade and a society driven by the desire to maximize profit regardless of the human cost, this new novel by the author of Pascali's Island (Penguin, 1988) offers a dark view of human nature clearly relevant to our own time. William Kemp hopes to recoup his losses in cotton speculation by entering the Triangular Trade. As ship's doctor, his nephew Matthew experiences firsthand the horrors of shipboard life, ultimately leading a revolt that lands the crew and remaining slaves on the southeastern coast of Florida. Here they try to establish ``a paradise place,'' but events force Matthew to conclude that ``nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way.'' Though the pace drags at times, taken as a whole this is a masterful effort that delivers an important message. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.-- David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Kirkus Reviews
A masterful, thoroughly engrossing tale from acclaimed historical novelist Unsworth (Pascali's Island, 1980; Stone Virgin, 1986)—about the British slave trade in the mid-18th century and a shipboard mutiny from which arose a community based on racial equality. Through the perspectives of Erasmus Kemp, son of the shipowner and an obsessive, insensitive youth; and Matthew Paris—his cousin, a doctor (and ship's physician) recently imprisoned for publishing his seditious views in favor of evolution—Unsworth contrasts imagery of a genteel life in England with an increasingly brutal, barbaric existence under the command of the maniacal Captain Thurso. As slaves are collected from traders along the African coast, the fortunes of the owner decline precipitously, with his suicide and the ruin of Erasmus's fanciful plans of empire-building and grandeur through a good marriage the result. Becalmed, the ship's human cargo begins to sicken and die, and an increasingly vexed Thurso opts to alleviate matters by throwing ailing slaves overboard—an act spurring Paris and the crew to kill him. After landing on the remote coast of Florida, ex-slaves and sailors live in freedom for 12 years—inspired by the utopian ideals of an itinerant artist picked up in Africa—until they are captured by soldiers under Erasmus, who, consumed by the same sacred hunger for wealth that made chattel of human beings, has spared no effort to hunt down the cousin whom he blames for the loss of his dream. Intense in its elaboration of two vastly different visions of destiny and cause-and-effect, more steeped in history than Charles Johnson's Middle Passage: a riveting, outstanding addition toan already impressive oeuvre.

From the Publisher
“A remarkable novel in every way. . . . Beautifully written. . . . Brilliant.” —The New York Times 

“Brilliantly suspenseful. . . . A masterly meditation on how avarice dehumanizes the oppressor as well as the oppressed.” —Chicago Tribune

“Completely absorbing in its irony, its striking imagery, its fully realized characters and its sure and complex moral touch.” —The Boston Globe
“Utterly magnificent.” —The Washington Post

“Wonderful and heartbreaking. . . . A book of grace and meditative elegance, and of great moral seriousness.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Utterly accessible and hauntingly executed. . . . A profound sense of time and place that’s worthy of Dickens. . . . A completely satisfying literary experience and a great story, wonderfully well told.” —David Halberstam, author of The Coldest Winter

Sacred Hunger triumphs on two levels: as a rippingly good historical drama and as a serious moral tale. All the surface pleasures of the former—stirring adventure passionate characters, epic length, a carefully detailed look at a long, lost world—combine brilliantly with the richness of the latter. No wonder the Book Prize committee chose to honor it.” —The Seattle Times

“Like Conrad, Unsworth is a novelist whose work is dense with plotting and pacing, and rich in both writing and sheer storytelling.” —Newsday

“[Unsworth] has given us a real, sweating, breathing, bleeding, complex world, a world in which blacks sell other blacks into slavery and whites flog and cheat each other to turn a profit, and a few heroic men and women of both races struggle toward justice against the prevailing social values and their own fears and doubts.” —Los Angeles Times

“Superb. . . . Magnificent. . . . at once an adventure novel, a novel of idea, and a novel of richly realized character.” —Buffalo News

“[Sacred Hunger] has an obvious brilliance which will cast its own light. . . . A magnificent novel.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)

New York Times Book Review
“Wonderful and heartbreaking....It is a book of grace and meditative elegance, and of great moral seriousness.”
Washington Post
“Utterly magnificent....By its last page, you will be close to weeping.”
Chicago Tribune
“This brilliantly suspenseful period piece about the slave trade in the 18th century is also a meditation on how avarice dehumanizes the oppressor as well as the oppressed.”

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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3 MB

Read an Excerpt

The ship he meant was the Liverpool Merchant, Captain Saul Thurso, and he had never seen her, though she carried the seeds Of all his dreams in her hold.
She carried death for the cotton broker who owned her, or so at least his son believed. For Erasmus Kemp it was always to seem that the ship had killed his father, and the thought poisoned his memories. Grief works its own perversions and betrayals: the shape of what we have lost is as subject to corruption as the mortal body, and Erasmus could never afterwards escape the idea that his father had been scenting his own death that drab afternoon in the timber yard on the banks of the Mersey when, amid colours of mud and saffron, he had lowered himself rather awkwardly down to sniff at the newly cut sections of mast for his ship. Not odours of embalmment, nothing sacramental; the reek of his own death.
It was an ugly thought, confirmed somehow by other remembered details, thought naturally only Erasmus himself, as host to it, could have found these admissible as evidence: smell of wet sawdust and trodden mud—the mud was flecked with sawdust; cold swamp smell of the river only some hundred yards off; another odour too, stink of neglect, not really belonging here, transferred from another day by the same ugly workings of grief.
The sections of the mast were pale yellow; they lay in trestles under the rough plank roof—the shed was open at the sides. It had been raining heavily and the men had made a causeway of wood blocks down the churned slope of the bank. Erasmus had felt embarrassed at the theatrical way his father had brought his face so close up to snuffie at the raw wood. At twenty-one he was reticent, not given to gestures, moreover just then in a state of inflamed sensitivity, being in the early phase of his undeclared love for Sarah Wolpert.
'Prime quality.' Kemp straightened himself for the pronouncement. 'When this tree was cut it was drinking sweetly. You can smell it in the sap. If you want to test the soundness of the timber, smell the sapwood. Isn't that right, lads?' He had made himself an expert on timber too.
It was imported fir from the Baltic. 'Fir for a mast,' Kemp said. 'Fir is one thing breeds better out of England. By God, there are not many.'
Those round him laughed. They all knew him. They had seen him about the yards, with his quick movements, darkly flushed face, something careless in his dress without being slovenly, the short unpowdered wig, the long, square-cut outer coat usually hanging open.
'See, my boy,' he said to the aloof Erasmus. 'Come over here and see. The pieces are all cut and ready. Here are the two parts of the spindle. D'you mark the taper on them? They'll be coaked together in the middle here, and bolted after. Look at these woundy great fellows, d'you know what they are? See the thickness of them.'
His accent was still that of the rural Lancashire he had left as a child but warmer and more precipitate than is common there. He explained to his son how the spindle would be assembled and the massive side-trees jointed round it, how the mast would be thickened athwartships and fore and aft with heels of plank, then further secured by great iron hoops driven on the outside. And the mast was braced stronger in his mind with every word he spoke, every mark of assent from those around him, and his ship made proof against the violence of men and weather, ensuring a speedy passage and a good return on his outlay—and only Kemp could know how desperately this was needed.
Not knowing, Erasmus was bored and ill at ease—he had no natural friendliness towards inferiors as his father had. Remorse for the boredom would come too, in its season, and even for the ignorance, his failure to understand this striving to make the ship indestructible.
The signs were there for anyone to see. Kemp was a busy man but he would find occasion several times a week to ride down from his house in the town or his place of business near the Old Pool Dock to spend some time in Dickson's Yard on the river bank, where his ship was being built, poking about, chatting to the shipwrights. Wealth had not dimmed his need to be liked, his desire to appear knowledgeable; and for a man who had come from nothing it was a gratifying thing to command this labour, to see the flanks of his ship swell on the stocks from day to day as by the patient breath of a god.
Not that there was much unusual about her. Ships had not changed significantly for a long time now. They were still built of wood, still powered by the action of the wind on sails of flax canvas attached to masts and yards supported by hemp rigging. Columbus, set down on any vessel of the time, would not have found much to puzzle him. All the same, these Liverpool ships had some special features: they were built high in the stem so that the swivel guns mounted on their quarterdecks could be the more easily, the more commodiously as might have been said then—a word curiously typical of the age—trained down on their waists to quell slave revolt; they had a good width of beam and a good depth of hold and they were thickened at the rails to make death leaps more difficult.
Nothing very special then about the Liverpool Merchant. Her purpose was visible from the beginning, almost, of her construction, in the shape of her keel, the gaunt ribs of her hull: a Liverpool snow, two-masted, brig-rigged, destined for the Atlantic trade. But Kemp's natural optimism had been inflamed to superstition by the mounting pressure of his debts, and his hope in the ship was more than commercial.
He was a sanguine, handsome man, dark-complexioned, with straight brows and bright, wide-open black eyes and a habit of eager gesture that was something of a joke among his generally more stolid acquaintance—a limited joke, because Kemp, at least so far as anyone then knew, was successful in his enterprises and rich, with a wealth he was not reluctant to display: fine stone house in Red Cross Street among the principal merchants of the town; his own carriage with a liveried groom; a wife expensively turned out, though languid-looking—the positive, quick-mannered father and the glowering son together seemed to have drained her.
Father and son looked at each other now, standing beside the still-bleeding mast-pieces in the great draughty shed, divided in their sense of the occasion but with the same handsome brows and dark eyes, wide-open, bright, somehow dazed-looking, showing the same capacity for excess. 'A thousand oaks to make this ship of mine,' Kemp said, with satisfaction. 'D'you know how to tell if the heart of an oak is sound? Veins of dried pith in it, that's the danger sign, means the wood is rotten. That's what you look for. Ask these fellows, they know. Pity you can't do the same with people, eh, lads?'
He was attractive, even in his condescension; there was something magnetic about him. But not all filings will fly the same way, and the visit to the sailmaker's loft was less successful. Erasmus could never remember how long afterwards this was, or indeed whether it was afterwards at all—his memories of those days had no ordered sequence. But he remembered feeling over-exposed here, in the large square loft brimming with light from its long windows, water-light thrown up from the grey river, austere and abundant, falling without distinction on faces and hands, on the dusty planks of the floor, the low benches, the tarred post in the centre with its rope and tackle for hanging the sails. A horizontal bar came out from this, with a square of thin sail-cloth draped over it.
There were three men on stools, with canvas spread over their knees, two journeymen and the sailmaker, a pale sparse-haired man. It was to him that Kemp spoke, with that warmth of manner that came naturally to him.
'Well, my friend, and how is the work proceeding?'
The two others had risen at the merchant's entrance, clutching the work in their laps; but he gave only a single glance upwards, then resumed his stitching. 'Well enough, as the times are,' he said.
Erasmus had noted the failure to rise, the absence of respectful title, the implicit complaint. This was some radical, atheist fellow—the yards were full of them. 'See to your sails, you were best,' he said. 'Let those that are fitted for office see to the times.'

What People are Saying About This

David Halberstam
Possibly the best novel I've read in the last decade.

Meet the Author

BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali's Island and Morality Play and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works include The Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, Losing Nelson, and Land of Marvels.

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Sacred Hunger 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Debt, slavery, the nature of justice and morality. Screw you Ayn Rand.
Goodreadercarol More than 1 year ago
I am guilty of starting a book, and if it is slow going after about 100 pages, I put it down and (sometimes) never go back. I almost did that on Sacred Hunger, and am really glad I persevered. The book has great historical details on shipbuilding, life aboard a slave ship, early British society, the history of early Florida and the African slave trade. The characters are flawed, the story is dark, but absolutely wonderful. Great book for a book club. A very powerful book--one of the best I have read.
Packleader3 More than 1 year ago
While I'm 3/4 of the way through this book, I find it most interesting in looking back at the slave trade and the early settling of Florida. The characters are somewhat dark, but they seem to work well with the subject and the reality of those days. Life was harsh and conditions for black slaves were abominable. It breaks your heart as you feel the plight of black slaves and the emotional pain of leaving their entire life and loved ones behind for a life (if they survived) of being less than a dog. If you like history I highly suggest this. While I can't say it's exciting, I have already purchased the next book in the series to see where it goes. It does have a way of taking you in with its characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written.
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