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Sacred Hunger (1992)

de Barry Unsworth

Séries: Sacred Hunger (1)

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1,427329,900 (4.09)260
A historical novel about the slave trade in Liverpool.
  1. 00
    Sea of Poppies de Amitav Ghosh (jigarpatel)
    jigarpatel: Appreciated by the Booker Prize, Sacred Hunger (1992 winner) and Sea of Poppies (2008 finalist) are powerful and well-researched indictments of British imperial trade interests. They explore slave and opium trade routes respectively, combining adventure with multi-threaded plots and sensitive characterisation.… (mais)
  2. 00
    Middle Passage de Charles Johnson (rebeccanyc)
    rebeccanyc: While Middle Passage is a complex, philosophical, and psychological look not only at the slave trade but also at the African-American experience more broadly, Sacred Hunger, which also focuses on the slave trade, is a more straightforward historical novel.… (mais)
  3. 00
    Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution de Simon Schama (BIzard)

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I'm reading all the Booker Prize winners in this, the 50th year of the prize. Follow me at www.methodtohermadness.com.

1992: What a great year for literature. The English Patient and Sacred Hunger, two stupendous books, shared the prize. However, the rules were changed after this second double-prize year (1974 was the other) so that two winners wouldn’t share the podium again. The two novels, while both intricately plotted, could not be more dissimilar in style: the former is told in an ethereal, nonlinear, post-Modernist way; the latter in such a realistic fashion that it could almost pass for a novel of the period it is set in, the mid-1700s.

Why haven’t I heard of Barry Unsworth before? Sacred Hunger is a compelling, suspenseful, dense historical novel about the slave trade, and as such, it is also a philosophical meditation on liberty, equality, justice, and capitalism. The title refers to greed, the hunger for money that drives European men of the time not only to enslave Africans, but also to imprison debtors and cheat Native Americans out of their land. This avarice is viewed as part of the impersonal mechanics of trade, and therefore outside the scope of ethics.

Our cast of characters includes Matthew Paris, ex-convict and ship physician. He is nephew to the owner of the ship, and therefore cousin to the owner’s heir, Erasmus Kemp. Both men pursue justice in radically different ways: Paris makes life on the slave ship as comfortable as possible for everyone, black and white, which means confronting its mercenary despot, the profit-thirsty Captain Thurso. Kemp's pursuit comes twelve years later, when the ship thought lost is found, and he seeks to reclaim its “cargo” to vindicate his father.

Early on, British men are shown being pressed into service on the slave ship, using various underhanded tactics. This leads the reader to hope that these men will have more sympathy for the Africans who will later board the ship as slaves, but the outcomes are more complicated than that. I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone, because I wish everyone would read it, especially in these politically divided times, when the politics of the rich are overpowering justice for all. ( )
1 vote stephkaye | Dec 14, 2020 |
An exploration of power, domination, and greed that is set in the 18th century. The title refers to the desire of Britain 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, Erasmus, who needs a fortune because he is in love with an upper-class woman; and his nephew, Matthew Paris, who sails on the ship as its doctor because he has lost all he has loved. The voyage meets its demise, [and] the sailors and slaves set up a secret, utopian society in the wilderness of Flordia, only to await the vengeance of the single-minded, young Kemp. ( )
  jwhenderson | Oct 23, 2019 |
Sacred Hunger is an ambitious drama based on the 18th century triangular slave trade route. The Liverpool Merchant sets off to exchange manufactured goods for slaves in West Africa, who can in turn be traded in the West Indies for commodities valued in Britain.

What struck me most reading this novel is my changing attitudes towards the protagonists: Erasmus Kemp, the son of the stretched merchant who chartered the slave ship, and his cousin Matthew Paris, a disgraced doctor who has spent time in prison and lost his family in mysterious circumstances. Erasmus' distrust of Paris runs deep, a childhood altercation festering in his mind. Paris, helpless, bemoaning the loss of all he valued and loved, joins the expedition as a doctor. The ship picks up artist and philosopher Delblanc, whose discussions with Paris have a profound effect on the future of the ship.

The slaves are depicted with a rawness and detail that is shocking, but in a way nevertheless essential to the story. Unsworth masterfully marks their evolution from chattel to vivid characters. The last third of the novel is essentially a "big picture" narrative on natural living; the subplots in this environment are a highlight.

The first half reminds me of Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, which incriminates the British empire as it bankrolled opium trade with China. The second half has echoes of Aldous Huxley's Island, a philosophical utopia depicting how a pre-industrialised society can flourish. Both are recommended if you enjoy this novel. ( )
  jigarpatel | Jun 17, 2019 |
The first half of this book was great historical fiction - vivid writing, large cast of characters portrayed with depth, and strong sense of the era. The second half of the book takes it so much further though, becoming a nuanced meditation on whether greed and self-serving behavior are fundamental to human nature and prevent the possibility of ever creating a just society. ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
This book is an excellent read. It was slow going, but Barry Unsworth is a great story teller. A sad and terrible story of the slave trade. Well done. ( )
  melanieklo | Jul 25, 2018 |
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A historical novel about the slave trade in Liverpool.

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