"Money is sacred, as everyone knows," a character in Barry Unsworth's rich and beautifully written ninth novel says with great irony. "So, then, must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it."
"Sacred Hunger" is set in the mid-18th Century, though the above remark, like many of the book's moral lessons and debates, might also be applied to modern times. The plot, too--centering as it does on the purchase of slaves and their shipment from Africa to America--has important contemporary echoes. To Unsworth's credit, though, he has not merely created a cardboard past and painted it with 20th-Century political correctness; he has given us a real, sweating, breathing, bleeding, complex world, a world in which blacks sell other blacks into slavery and whites flog and cheat each other to turn a profit, and a few heroic men and women of both races struggle toward justice against the prevailing social values and their own fears and doubts.
Unsworth's pace is leisurely. The novel begins with a wealthy but debt-ridden Liverpool businessman named Kemp, who decides that the slave trade is the route out of his financial difficulties. Kemp commissions a ship to be built for this purpose, the Liverpool Merchant, and personally supervises the sail-making and woodworking, while his grown son Erasmus looks on.
From these very first pages, Unsworth displays his grasp of historical detail, and a talent for stitching one fine scene smoothly into the next. The proper sewing of sails, the fitting of oak planks tightly together to form the ship's main deck, the notes of reluctant subservience in a workman's voice--every thread is of the correct length, width and color. To man this slave ship, Unsworth mobilizes a cast of characters rivaling that of "Moby Dick": a cruel, experienced captain named Thurso; a sensitive ship's surgeon, Matthew Paris, who happens to be Kemp's nephew, and a finely drawn group of seamen--fiddlers, drunks, sadists and simpletons.
As the Liverpool Merchant sets sail for Africa to take on its human cargo, Erasmus Kemp, home in England, sets a course he hopes will lead to marriage with a neighboring beauty named Sarah Wolpert. Though Unsworth shifts between these two story lines throughout the book, in the first half of the novel he wisely dwells on the scenes aboard ship. He has created such a convincing and intricate world there that the reader feels a small disappointment at each return to the more common domestic drama.
At sea, it does not take long for tension to develop between the pragmatic and merciless Captain Thurso and Kemp's sensitive nephew, Matthew Paris. Thurso, like the Kemps, finds nothing objectionable in the buying and selling of human beings. His morality is the morality of the herd, a commercial religion based on a kind of despicable trickle-down theory. In one of his many ironic jabs at modern economics and mores, Unsworth describes the slave-trading era in England as "a time when the individual pursuit of wealth was regarded as inherently virtuous, on the grounds that it increased the wealth and well-being of the community. Indeed, this process of enrichment was generally referred to as 'wealth-creation' by the theorists of the day."
A tyrant in a tyrannical time, Thurso mistreats not only the slaves, but his own seamen as well. The story is dotted with accounts of floggings, the application of thumbscrews, and other cruel punishments that serve to set some of the men against their captain. By the time the Liverpool Merchant is ready to leave the African coast with its valuable human cargo, the crew is stewing with resentment, sick with fever, hungry and thirsty. The ship reeks of excrement, is infested with rats; slaves and crew alike sicken and die, and, appropriately, the ship wallows for days in the hot African doldrums.
Meanwhile, back in England, the elder Kemp's debts have multiplied, bringing him to his own appropriate punishment. His son Erasmus, whose narcissism Unsworth goes to somewhat excessive lengths to establish, sinks into temporary disgrace, losing, in the process, his beloved Sarah. At this point, roughly 400 pages into the novel, Unsworth leaves us to imagine the climax of the building tensions aboard the Liverpool Merchant, and leaps forward 12 years into Erasmus' future and that of the ship's crew.