Sacred Hunger

by Barry Unsworth

I wonder why I had never heard of this book until recently, although it shared the 1992 Booker prize with The English Patient, which I read at the time?

Many critics and reviewers have commented on the way the second ‘book’ is slower than the first.  I certainly felt this, and I also found the copious use of pidgin rather annoying at times.  The author seems to be playing with the language, making his characters try to express complex ideas and emotions in pidgin.  Maybe this works – but it is not essential to the story.  Neither is the description of the customs and practices that the ‘paradise’ community has established.

Much more interesting, for me, was the story of the slave traders’ progress along the Guinea coast of Africa, their various transactions with different dealers at different times resulting in a community of former slaves from widely varying African geographic and cultural backgrounds.  So too were the individually-told stories of the men who are more or less ‘pressed’ to join the ship’s crew.  Matthew Paris is well developed as a character, and his ‘back story’ serves to illuminate not only his reason for joining as ship’s doctor, but also his intellectual and emotional responses to the behaviour of the captain and crew.  Not all the characters are as well-rounded.  Thurso (the captain) seems to be a caricature of a crazed bully.  My mental image of him is of the deranged sea captain in the second season of the BBC’s Blackadder series, and this image refuses to budge.  The painter and idealist Delblanc who joins the ship in Africa and is the architect of the Florida community is hazy, and almost superfluous. Would the community have been so very different if he had not been around to help shape it intellectually?

Violence, misery, deception – all these things are to be expected in a story that deals with the minutiae of the slave trade as experienced by merchants, seamen and slaves.  The detailed physical description of the south Florida environment is captivating, and so too are the characters who retain some hope and even humour, as well as humanity, through all their ordeals.  This is not a bleak tale, though the lives of its characters are far from easy or enviable.

Three others of Unsworth’s books have been short- or long-listed for the Booker at various times.  And yet I have never heard of the author or his work.  His writing is superb: clean, clear, well-rounded prose.  Maybe I will try another of his books one day.