Book Review: Barry Unsworth – Sacred Hunger

“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others.” (Page 613) I found it rather apt that this historical novel chronicled the voyage of a slave ship. For the author himself took readers on a journey. Not a voyage to some foreign locale, but a sojourn to define the very core of human nature itself.  

The title of the book derived from the following line delivered by Delblanc, a secondary character, of all things.

‘Money is sacred, as everyone knows,” he said. ‘So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.’ (Page 325)

This story reminded me of works such as William Golding’s sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth, and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I recognized their influences as I read the section where Captain Thurso threw ill slaves overboard so he could collect insurance money. I recalled the author’s description of the Captain as a man who “despised cruelty, as he did compassion, and all other redundant shoots of the human spirit.” (Page 114) Unsworth also portrayed the captain as, “a simple man, being an incarnation, really, of the profit motive, than which there can be few things simpler.” (Page 382) While doing a lot of cringing, I had a pretty good idea where Unsworth would take his narrative. But, like the truly great ones, the author sprung a magnificent plot twist that completely changed the tone of the whole story. I won’t ruin the pleasure for readers by spoiling it here.

My favorite plot twists are the ones I don’t see coming, but still don’t feel cheated as a reader.  That’s how I would describe the one Unsworth used in Sacred Hunger. The only real foreshadowing I noticed occurred in the section where Unsworth described, “the man who was to have been his father-in-law.” (Page 385) This brought to mind the writing of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I always enjoy reading well-read authors.

Sacred Hunger provided some vivid depictions of the better angels of human nature, to paraphrase James Madison. Unsworth’s deft skill as a writer shone in such sections. Many authors struggle to do this well in a book detailing happy event. Few could write such prose in a story involving a slave ship. One of the most moving passages read:

Love does not stand still, as everyone knows; it is always adding to its own shape whether by advance or retreat. Wounds can be absorbed, but only like elements embodied in a story; they are always there, part of the meaning. (Page 226)

Another memorable line read, “That a man engaged in this cruel trade still deserved not to be treated with cruelty seemed a mystery to Paris rather than a truth; but it was one that contained a strong imperative for him.” (Page 266)

I thought this book engrossing and difficult to put down. The author did an exceptional job stimulating my curiosity to find out what would happen next. I did have a few critiques. Above I cited some examples of how the author used language beautifully. I located some other parts that should have been much better. Here’s an example.

But Hughes, high up on the mainmast top setting the small sails, and Morgan, who was standing outside the galley to get some air, and Wilson and Sullivan smoking on the forecastle, and those of the slaves who happened to find themselves against the starboard rail…(Page 347)

Please. While reading this my mind was thinking, “And then this one time at band camp…” This blurb contained a lot of unnecessary detail that broke the narrative flow. In addition it came at a tense point in the story.  Unsworth won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in 1992. I’m hopeful that used some of the prize money to hire a better proofreader for his next book.

My main criticism involves the epistemiological paradigm Unsworth applied to the book. He thoroughly covered the issue of race relations between Europeans and Africans. He even explored European relations with Indians in the New World towards the end of the book. I thought his lack of attention to gender relations glaring. His described a utopian community in the Florida wilderness not just male dominated; no female voice spoke in this section. Due to the nature of the settlement I found this very bewildering. I really wanted to know what the female inhabitants thought of the living arrangements there. As Unsworth used the omniscient point-of-view I’m not sure why he didn’t explore this in more detail. It would’ve made the book much more interesting. (Read it and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.)

Sacred Hunger provided readers with a portal into the core of human nature itself. I came away with a deeper appreciation for dignity and a more positive outlook on human nature. As Unsworth wrote, “Grief works its own perversions and betrayals: the shape of what we have lost is as subject to corruption as the mortal body.” (Page 7) To anyone looking for a deeper insight into the human experience look no further than Sacred Hunger.             


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