Barry Unsworth’s epic tale of greed and suffering centers around two men in the eighteenth century- Matthew Paris, a doctor aboard The Liverpool Merchant- a slave ship bound for America and his cousin, Erasmus Kemp, landlocked in a Victorian romance that eventually leads to the latter’s emotional downfall. Through The Merchant, the author explores the ghastly triangular trade where baubles are bartered for slaves along the West Coast of Africa en route to the new world, and re-bartered for goods that would be sold in England completing the somber triangle. The title, Sacred Hunger, is as profound as it is original; just as profit is sacred to those who strive for it, so is the drive that impels them, the hunger which finds a dark apotheosis in this brilliant work that in its essence raises philosophical questions much like Camus’ The Stranger.
Few characters in modern literature evoke the degree of terror and brutality as that of the captain of the vessel-Thurso, a shrewd and merciless reprobate greatly feared by his crew. Paris, the slaver’s doctor on the other hand is in strong contrast to Thurso, as a man remarkably enlightened for the century and era he was born into. The Doctor’s reason for embarking on such a calamitous voyage aboard The Liverpool Merchant that had little monetary benefits to offer is steeped in tragedy. For him, it was less a perilous adventure than escape from a land where his happiness was impossible. No stranger to suffering himself, one cannot help but be touched by the good Doctor’s genuine empathy towards the slaves eventually leading him to make decisions that would change the course of his life forever.
Although sections of Sacred Hunger are vaguely reminiscent of Spielberg’s movie Amistad, the novel is unlike anything ever attempted before in terms of mastery of craft- Unsworth’s words delineate history with enormous detail-from wanton acts of necrophilia to the bourgeois delicacies of English households, nothing ruins this high-wire act across the valley of time; and in terms of plot, it is flawless. Utterly convincing. There are no cheap gimmicks here-not an iota of pretense. Despite everything-the squalor, the abysmal cruelty human beings are capable of, the humiliation of the weak, the triumph of greed; it would be puerile to call this a depressing novel. It is beyond that. Beyond redemption even. A blasphemous rendering of one thoroughly fucked-up time. The novel is nothing short of a work of genius in that the writing measures up to the monumentally difficult task of re-creating a bygone era to an extreme degree of credibility. It would not be an overstatement to say that Sacred Hunger is one of the most ambitious literary resurrections ever attempted. It is an endeavor that reeks of masterful storytelling entwined with scholarship and a deep understanding of human psychology. Sadly, it remains one of the most underrated works of the 20th century despite being an imaginative tour-de-force.