Sacred Hunger is an exceptional work of historical fiction that manages to humanize an often inhumane period of human history.
It’s no secret that, pre-Age of Enlightenment, the world was a pretty bleak place for all but the most elite citizens. Oppressed by the church, the monarchy and any number of other factors, even those in European countries had a pretty rough go of it. But it paled in comparison to the treatment – if it can even be called that – of Africans as the slave trade ramped up. The horrors associated therein have been documented time and again in both fictionalized historical narratives and straight from the pens of those who lived through the experiences. Because of this, there is no shortage of material written about this particular time. Less so are the narratives that combine both the slave trade and pre-Enlightenment lines of thinking, namely those based on that which is spelled out in the Bible and taken – pardon the pun – as the gospel truth.
First published in 1992, Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger offers an in-depth (albeit fictionalized) look at life in Liverpool and aboard a slave-trading ship in the latter half of the 18th century. Basing his narrative around a set of cousins – Erasmus Kemp whose father owns the aforementioned ship, Liverpool Merchant, and Matthew Paris, a physician and scientist – Unsworth explores not only the inhumanity of the slave trade and the horrors contained therein, but also the generational and ideological clashes that fueled much of the Age of Enlightenment. Matthew Paris has recently been released from prison following a stint locked up for a series of writings about the world that went against the “facts” laid out in the Bible. Here Unsworth establishes the first of several themes explored throughout as humanity struggles to free itself from centuries of backwards thinking and blind faith and move towards a more educated, fact-based approach to scientific exploration and discovery.
It’s a conflict that finds Paris at odds with many in the crew of the Liverpool Merchant – where he has taken a position as surgeon – and directly facing the human atrocities committed in the name of greed (i.e. the “sacred hunger” of the title). Encompassing the first of two books situated roughly a decade apart, Paris’s story traces the Liverpool Merchant’s voyage from Liverpool to the west coast of Africa, the acquisition of slaves and the barbarous treatment afforded the human cargo on their way to the new world. Paris, the book’s moral center, is appalled by the means by which slaves are acquired – amounting to little more than hunting for humans – and the treatment of the slaves. He does little to hide his disgust from his fellow crew members, leading to various altercations and butting of heads, particularly with the ship’s cruel Captain Thurso.
Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the younger Kemp – who harbors an age-old grudge against his cousin – spends his time becoming more and more enamored of a young woman named Sarah Wolpert. Theirs is a relationship that becomes increasingly tenuous as his possessiveness and general character, made all the more so by the suicide of his father in the wake of financial ruin. Needless to say, much of the narrative trades in rather grim circumstances and situations for both the novel’s pro- and antagonists.
The book’s second half skips ahead some 10 years after the fate the Liverpool Merchant in the wake of unrest amongst the crew, returning the narrative to Kemp as he attempts to salvage his life following his father’s shameful suicide and the loss of the family ship. Given his already bitter temperament, Kemp’s hatred of his cousin becomes his driving force, leading him to track down the lost ship, its crew and cargo and Paris himself. Finding themselves perennially at odds ideologically, the two clash, with Kemp ultimately realizing that perhaps Paris hadn’t been so wrong. It’s a tidy way to show the conflicting ideologies made manifest within two distinct character types: one driven by capitalism and greed, the other by the never-ending pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery.
An intricately woven narrative, Sacred Hunger was awarded the Booker Prize in 1992. Now, 25 years later, it still manages to affect in much the same manner, its narrative sting having been not at all dulled in the intervening decades. Thrilling, exhausting and ultimately somewhat disheartening, Sacred Hunger is an exceptional work of historical fiction that manages to humanize an often inhumane period of human history.