Unsworth’s novel is historical fiction at its finest, a sprawling story of corruption and vengeance that begins in 1752 in the ship-building city of Liverpool, England, crosses the sea to the shores of Africa and back, and ends 13 years later in Florida, England’s newest colony in the Americas. Sacred Hunger is also a philosophical treatise on morality, wherein the reader is repeatedly challenged on the fundamental question of what constitutes a good and worthy life. The story centers around the African slave trade. But, in fact, it is about enslavement—whether by chains, superstition, or greed—and as such, it succeeds in powerfully transcending the historical period it encompasses.
The story begins with wealthy Liverpool merchant Kemp, who is building a slave ship upon which he has pinned his hopes for reversing his recent financial losses on the sugar market. His son Erasmus is a soulless figure, oblivious to his father’s dire straits and concerned only with winning Sarah Wolpert as his bride. Enter Matthew Paris, a physician and Kemp’s nephew who has lost his wife and unborn child while imprisoned for challenging church doctrine. Erasmus despises his cousin, an irrational hatred which is to become the defining thread of his—and Paris’—life. Kemp pays Paris’ way out of jail and hires him as surgeon for his ship’s maiden voyage to Africa, under the captainship of the tyrannical Saul Thurso. And thus the stage is set. Many colorful characters are added to the plot, from the “scum of the earth” who are gangpressed into service aboard the ship, to the African slave dealers who buy and sell their brethren like cattle, to the politicians at home and colonial governors abroad to whom the “sacred hunger” of wealth and power, is everything, to the slaves themselves—all of whom we come to know intimately by the novel’s end.
For fear of spoiling the plot, I won’t give any more details on the story itself. However, I have to say that I found the author’s writing to be brilliant. He is able to vividly capture the smells of the shipyard, the stink and corruption of Liverpool’s dockside pubs, the brutal tensions aboard the slave ship, the humanity–and the despair–of the slaves. Most of all, the reader cannot fail to come away from reading this novel with a profound disgust for the venality of the British Empire itself, which I would say is ultimately the real villain of this book.