“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 shop had killed his father, and the thought poisoned his memories.”
Booker prize winners can be hit or miss with me. Some have amazingly beautiful writing, but lack a story line with decent continuity, or the story itself isn’t interesting. But I decided to take a chance with Sacred Hunger. This turned out to be historical fiction at it’s finest. Here, author Barry Unsworth takes on the story of a slaveship, The Liverpool Merchant, and tells the tale of those who came to be involved in her. From the merchant family named Kemp, to Captain Thurso, the crew and the slaves themselves, each has an inner drive, a “sacred hunger,” which not only affects their own lives, but those around them. It was a bit slow to start (it took about 100 pages before I was totally absorbed), but once it took hold, the story wouldn’t let go.
Unsworth holds nothing back when he describes the brutality and the thinking of those who would enslave others, but he also goes further, into the most primitive inner thoughts of his characters. The ship and it’s cargo of slaves does not make it to Jamaica. The owner’s son, Erasmus Kemp, is later told a rumor that the ship was discovered aground in Florida, where a rogue settlement live, black and white persons, together. Kemp is angry and determined to find out what happened, in order to seek justice and revenge. Much of the story is told through the journal of the ship’s surgeon, who struggles with the idea that he must heal and support cruelty to humans simultaneously. Through his eyes, we see how enlightened thought can battle for the soul of man, and be surprised at how easily it can be defeated.
I greatly enjoyed this masterful work and look forward to reading it’s sequel, The Quality of Mercy.
4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1992