In 1992 the Man Booker prize was shared for the first time. Now everybody remembers “The English Patient” but fewer remember the book that tied with it, which is a shame because it is a wonderful book.
Sacred Hunger opens with Erasmus Kemp’s father showing him the construction of his ship, the LIVERPOOL MERCHANT. His father loves watching over the building of the ship and explaining techniques and parts to his son. However, due to the war with France, and the economy, his father is badly in debt, but he firmly believes the ship to be his salvation. The ship will be a slaver and trade slaves on the market. Erasmus, however, thinks that this ship will be the instrument of his doom.
His cousin Mathew Paris, unbeknownst to most, has been recently released from prison and is to be the ship’s surgeon. An important and vital job. Erasmus and Paris do not get along. The captain of the ship, Saul Thurso, a man who cannot control his anger and fits of rage, is upset with Paris’ inclusion in the ship’s crew. Even more so when he finds out that he is the nephew of William Kemp. He believes that Kemp does not trust his experience in the selection of slaves, and has added Paris, to oversee this job.
Orphaned at four, born and raised by the sea, Captain Thurso is such a character. Every passage that he is involved in is a delight to read, predominantly because of his dialogue and manner. He oozes this undercurrent of potential violence, seemingly ready to draw his sword and spill your guts at the slightest provocation. I cannot envision a better Captain for the Liverpool Merchant and this story.
Along with Captain Thurso, Unsworth fleshes out the cast with some wonderful characters who make up the rest of the crew. Billy Blair just back from a voyage is looking to spend his earnings in the local tavern with rum and women, when he falls prey to the dreaded press gang, who add him to the crew violently. No violence Is needed with Daniel Calley. Calley is none too bright, and the promise of an Africa filled with adventure, women, fruit you just pick off the trees, is easily enough to convince him to join the crew. Jim Deaken is a runaway from the navy who is turned in by his friend’s wife for the money.
Slavery plays a large role in this book, and its abolishment is the goal of Paris after he leads a mutiny and establishes a settlement on the coast of Florida, hidden away from the rest of the world. Paris envisions a utopia where everybody is treated equally and held accountable for their actions. He desires for every man, woman and child of this fledgling settlement to live in harmony and peace. An environment where none of the inhabitants burn with the “sacred hunger” for power, money and class.
Unsworth’s writing is highly descriptive and captures the squalid, horrible, claustrophobic conditions of what it must have been like for the slaves and crew travelling these trade routes. The navigation, the food, the endless monotony and boredom faced when not trying to paradoxically survive a storm very capable of sinking the ship.
Everything about this novel, the narrative, the characters, the prose is stellar and deserving of sharing the Man Booker prize of 1992. For me, it’s a shame that it seems to spend its life in “The English Patients” shadow, because it deserves more. 5 Stars!
Biography from goodreads.
Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham, and he attended Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School and Manchester University, B.A., 1951.
From 1951-53, in the British Army, Royal Corps of Signals, he served and became second lieutenant.
A teacher and a novelist, Unsworth worked as a lecturer in English at Norwood Technical College, London, at University of Athens for the British Council, at University of Istanbul,Turkey for British Council, lived as a Writer in residence, Liverpool University, England, and also at Lund University, Sweden. He was a teacher at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, 1999.
Unsworth was twice married, to Valerie Moor, 1959 with whom he had three daughters (marriage dissolved, 1991), and to Aira Pohjanvaara-Buffa, 1992. In later years made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.
Unsworth's first novel, The Partnership, was published in 1966 when he was 36. "...in my earlier novels, especially the two written in the early ’70s, The Hide and Mooncranker’s Gift, there was a baroque quality in the style, a density. The mood was grim, but the language was more figurative and more high-spirited. There was more delight in it, more self-indulgence, too. Among my earliest influences as a writer were the American novelists of the deep south, especially Eudora Welty, and some of that elated, grotesque comedy stayed with me."
Other novels include Mooncranker's Gift (1973) (winner of the Heinemann Award), Stone Virgin (1985), and Losing Nelson (1999). He counts William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers as his major influences.
Unsworth did not start to write historical fiction until his sixth novel, Pascali's Island. Pascali's Island (1980), the first of his novels to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is set on an unnamed Aegean island during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Reflecting on this shift, Unsworth explained: "Nowadays I go to Britain relatively rarely and for short periods; in effect, I have become an expatriate. The result has been a certain loss of interest in British life and society and a very definite loss of confidence in my ability to register the contemporary scene there – the kind of things people say, the styles of dress, the politics etc.– with sufficient subtlety and accuracy. So I have turned to the past. The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter. One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition – then and now – which transcend the particular period and become timeless." Pascali's Island was adapted as a film by James Dearden, starring Charles Dance, Helen Mirren, and Ben Kingsley as the title character.
Morality Play, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1995, is a murder mystery set in 14th-century England. It was adapted as a film, The Reckoning, starring Paul Bettany and Willem Dafoe.
"With time I have grown more sparing with the words. I think less of fire-works and flourishes. I try to get warmth and color through precision of language. This is more difficult, I think, which may be why I find writing novels so challenging and exacting."
Awards: Heinemann Award for Literature, Royal Society of Literature, 1974, for Mooncranker's Gift; Arts Council Creative Writing fellowship, Charlotte Mason College, 1978-79; literary fellow, Universities of Durham and Newcastle, 1983-84; Booker Prize (joint winner), 1992, for Sacred Hunger; honorary Litt.D., Manchester University, 1998.
There is a wonderful article from The Independent about Unsworth here -