1992: What a great year for literature. The English Patient and Sacred Hunger, two stupendous books, shared the prize. However, the rules were changed after this second double-prize year (1974 was the other) so that two winners wouldn’t share the podium again. The two novels, while both intricately plotted, could not be more dissimilar in style: the former is told in an ethereal, nonlinear, post-Modernist way; the latter in such a realistic fashion that it could almost pass for a novel of the period it is set in, the mid-1700s.
Why haven’t I heard of Barry Unsworth before? Sacred Hunger is a compelling, suspenseful, dense historical novel about the slave trade, and as such, it is also a philosophical meditation on liberty, equality, justice, and capitalism. The title refers to greed, the hunger for money that drives European men of the time not only to enslave Africans, but also to imprison debtors and cheat Native Americans out of their land. This avarice is viewed as part of the impersonal mechanics of trade, and therefore outside the scope of ethics.
Our cast of characters includes Matthew Paris, ex-convict and ship physician. He is nephew to the owner of the ship, and therefore cousin to the owner’s heir, Erasmus Kemp. Both men pursue justice in radically different ways: Paris makes life on the slave ship as comfortable as possible for everyone, black and white, which means confronting its mercenary despot, the profit-thirsty Captain Thurso. Kemp's pursuit comes twelve years later, when the ship thought lost is found, and he seeks to reclaim its “cargo” to vindicate his father.
Early on, British men are shown being pressed into service on the slave ship, using various underhanded tactics. This leads the reader to hope that these men will have more sympathy for the Africans who will later board the ship as slaves, but the outcomes are more complicated than that. I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone, because I wish everyone would read it, especially in these politically divided times, when the politics of the rich are overpowering justice for all.