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Review: Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth
Norton, 1993. 630 pp. $16

Four years ago almost to the day, Barry Unsworth died, my favorite contemporary author. The New York Times obituary called him “one of the foremost historical novelists in English,” an ungenerous epitaph if ever I’ve heard one. Like any literary master, Unsworth told powerful stories that expressed timeless themes through the actions of characters whom you’d swear lived and breathed. To qualify or diminish his accomplishment simply because history pricked his imagination more than present-day life is to miss the point of literature.

I’ve just finished Sacred Hunger, the sixth Unsworth novel I’ve read, and it’s sublime. The title refers to the urge to profit no matter what morality, decency, or human sympathy might dictate. The chief business here is the mideighteenth-century English slave trade, so the moral divide is very stark, but Unsworth takes that further. Not only does he replicate forms of slavery among people who have no direct connection to the trade, he shows how men and women can enslave themselves to ideas that cause them to inflict suffering on others. This is brilliant, and what’s more, it’s subtle–you see it without Unsworth having to tell you. It’s also unbearably tense, because every human transaction in Sacred Hunger carries tremendous risks, and for every mistake, someone will pay.

Punishment aboard a slave ship, 1792 (Courtesy Library of Congress via history.ac.uk)

Punishment aboard a slave ship, 1792 (Courtesy Library of Congress via history.ac.uk)

Any novel exploring the nature of evil must have a compelling, fully realized villain, and Sacred Hunger has two. Saul Thurso, captain of the newly launched slave ship Liverpool Merchant, lets nothing and no one touch him. Even to look him in the eyes is an affront, which he suffers only from his employers or social betters. He tolerates no attempt to establish rapport, for in his view, there are only masters and servants, the one controlling the other through terror. If the underling objects, it’s only to grab what rightfully belongs to the master. So when Thurso whips a crew man senseless, he believes he’s acting to protect his employer’s profit and, therefore, his own.

Erasmus Kemp, son of the Liverpool Merchant’s owner, shares one trait of Thurso’s, the inability to befriend anyone. However, Kemp craves that more than anything; he just goes to great lengths to deny it, burying it under his tremendous drive to make himself rich and successful. He can banter with other men and be genial when he thinks there’s money to be made, but in pursuit of love, he’s too raw to admit what he wants. Early in the novel, he courts a young woman as if she were a valuable commodity, albeit one who fires his passion. Impressed with his ardor, she takes him seriously enough to see through him and attempt to soothe his ill nature, if he could tolerate that. But there’s the rub:

Love had not so far made him happy. His intention, the fixing of his will on the girl, he experienced as an affliction. His whole being seemed tender, painful to the slightest touch–even at times, the touch of air itself. The impressions of his senses came as blows to his heart, strangely similar to those of loss or violation.

Like Thurso, then, Kemp’s a prisoner of his own false dignity. Both act despicably, though I understand why, not to excuse them, but to recognize them as real.

Enter Matthew Paris, Kemp’s cousin. Kemp despises him, first, because he’s served a prison sentence, and, second, because Paris dares to hold his head up. But Kemp, Sr., takes pity on his nephew and allows him a berth on the Liverpool Merchant as a doctor. Since Paris’s crime was distributing pamphlets questioning the Creation, he’s a free thinker and loud about it, so you know he’ll run afoul of Thurso. Sure enough, he tries to tell the captain that when a slave refuses to eat, it’s because he’s humiliated and melancholy, not, as Thurso would have it, to deny his captors their profit. You can guess how that exchange goes.

You might also guess that, with the tensions between captain and crew, captain and officers, and the entire ship’s company versus their human cargo, this voyage will end differently from the way Kemp and Thurso have planned. But just how differently, and how that unfolds, I leave for you to discover.

I’m so sorry that Barry Unsworth left us.

Disclaimer: I pulled this book off my shelf, where it had remained, unread, for an unconscionably long time.