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on 14 December 2004
Barry Unsworth's novel does deserve the Booker Prize that it won. From the moment I picked it up it was impossible to put down. The novel starts with a description of two classes in 18th century England: the working class and the burgeoning mercantile class exemplified by Erasmus Kemp. I particularly like the way Barry Unsworth portrays bawdy tavern speak using its clipped sounds and mispronounced words.

Sacred Hunger races between gaudy mansions of the nouveau riche in the English countryside and the slave dealers abode in humid, hot West Africa. It underlines the common humanity in us all and the questions that injustice raises. The novel's ace-in-the-hole is that he does not adopt a moralizing tone on the issue of slave trade. The novel is a stark description of our pitiful, insatiable greed, which was the cause of the the injustice that was the Slave Trade.

If you are a serious history buff looking for some perspective into the Slave Trade then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a fantastic bit of storytelling with the slave trade as a backdrop then you must read this one.
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on 25 October 2001
This epic of the eighteenth century British Slave Trade works at two levels. The first is as a straight and exciting narrative of the different stances to it of the two main characters, one who profits from it, and is at last morally enslaved by it himself while the other recognises its evil and attempts his own ultimately futile protest against it. At the second level the novel serves as a meditation on the nature of greed - the "Sacred Hunger" of the title, and the extent to which it can become a justification for any excess. Mr.Unsworth's genius in this book is however that the does not adapt a simplistic moralising tone but writes with understanding of the society that produced this abuse, and shows how potentially decent people could be drawn, unthinkingly, into the position of profiteers and exploiters. One does not get a sense here of modern perceptions and values being projected back on to an earlier age - the weakness which destroys so much serious fiction set in the past - and the characters' behaviour and attitudes, whether sympathetic to the Slave Trade or not , are consistent with those of eighteenth century British society. Like other novels of Unsworth's, this work has many echoes of Conrad, in its depiction of the depths to which humanity can so quickly plunge once the restraints of law and custom are relaxed. Though gripping from the first page it is disturbing work and the vividness of its plot and imagery will not quickly leave the reader. Very highly recommended.
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on 23 February 2004
What a wonderful book! The amount of research required for such an epic must be mind boggling. This is not just a novel about the slave trade, but a close look at the two very different personalities of the main protagonists, (as relevant today, as in 1752), and the justifcation, or not, of the Sacred Hunger of the title. We are treated to a graphic description of the terrible privations suffered by both the crew and their human cargo, and reminded of how human beings in certain parts of the world were treated worse than any animal, simply because of the colour of their skin. What more can I say? read it!
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on 30 June 1999
I went back to this book last week, for the first time in about five years. The odd thing is that even historical fiction ages. Not so in Mr. Unsworth's case. The writing remains crisp, the story absolutely addictive. I had just read a similar book set on the high seas, called the Requiem Shark. They're both highly evocative of their time, Shark a little less forgiving, Hunger more sweeping in its nature. I'm also a fan of Patrick O'Brien, but his books require a patience that neither Hunger or Shark demand with their doses of story and adrenalin. Buy Sacred Hunger, it didn't win the Booker Prize for nothing.
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on 20 February 2001
Unsworth's Booker prize sharing _Sacred_Hunger_ is a book of virtually unparalleled beauty. It sustains you, beckens you along, and leaves you heartbroken, with an entire new lexicon of heroes, villians, and victims. Ruthless in its intensity, unforgiving in its accusation and sparing of no detail, this monumental novel should be considered a landmark on the horizon of late 20th century literature.
Far superior to _Pascli's_Island_, another Booker nominee by Unsworth and the only other book of his I've read, I can only pray that this was not a solitary effort. How it was the co-winner with _The_English_Patient_ I'll never know. This surpasses that text in every respect.
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on 6 December 2008
The love of money, the making of profit is the sacred hunger of the title. This quest justifies everything and sanctifies all purposes. Living in their gaudy houses, playing with culture, romance and love, British merchants of the 18th century ruthlessly pillage Africa of its lifeblood. Detailed analysis of the triangular trade is woven into the first half of the novel which follows the history of The Liverpool Merchant slaver ship from conception and build to its disappearance in an Atlantic storm. Its tortuous voyage, the lives it blighted and destroyed (both in Britain and Africa) form a fascinating and, at times, horrendous narrative.

The second half of the novel focuses on the British in America where "white man is speaking with forked tongue" to vanquish the indigeneous nation on the other side of the Atlantic. It's heartbreaking to understand that shiny bright beads and baubles persuaded coastal Africans to hunt and enslave those from the interior. Heartbreaking also to see shiny bright medals persuade Indian chiefs to hand over lands to the British King.

While the history of the ship, its crew and its cargo steers us through the first half of the novel, the emnity between the two main protagonists, cousins Erasmus Kemp (the ship owner's son) and Matthew Paris (the ship's doctor) provides the narrative drive in the second. For Kemp wants Paris to pay for the damage done to his family when the ship did not return and pursues him across the Atlantic. In the meantime Paris, along with the visionary Delblanc, forms a utopian society with the survivors of the ship. Can this fledgling society, founded on the theft and brutalising of half its population, coalesce and heal? Or will the sacred hunger, common to mankind, reemerge even here?

Unsworth has done his homework but wears it lightly. There are many colourful characters and plenty of plot to disguise the research. If there is any fault in this novel, and I admit this grudgingly, it is that the pace of the first two sections is very slow. However, once The Liverpool Merchant reaches Africa, the pages turn very, very quickly indeed.
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on 18 January 2016
Whether, ultimately, you will like this novel probably depends how able/.willing you are to negotiate 120 pages of pidgin English. I really enjoyed it up to that point, but I found that the only way I could decode most of the pidgin was by reading it out loud, which after a page or two became exceedingly tedious. This section comes near the end of the book - a wonderfully humane account (not to say an easy read) of one slave ship's ill-fated journey. The prose is exquisite, compelling, magnificent. I had great expectations of the novel - it is clear from page one that the reader is in the hands of a master craftsman, but I am afraid I found myself turning page after page towards the end - I simply couldn't cope with the language problem. Pidgin English in quasi-phonetic transliteration is a cumbersome affair. Poetry in this medium can be a true delight if read aloud, but 120 pages of prosody - not for me, I'm afraid.
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on 29 August 2014
Unsworth is a new author for me, and this was an excellent book to start with. I don't usually like historical fiction, but this didn't read like the genre. It takes a wide sweep across society at the time of the slave trade, with contrasts between the well-to-do merchants who benefitted from the trade to the slaves themselves. The reader can see the world through the eyes of the different groups, all of whom were constrained by their situations and beliefs. You do have to persevere at the start, and if I had a criticism it would be that the early part goes on a bit too long - it was the least interesting section of the book. But with hindsight, having read to the end, the early part is there for a purpose.
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on 13 April 2009
I purchased this book after a read about it in the Wall Street Journal - it was one of her ten best historical novels the newspaper's critic presented.

I couldn't let it down. The story is captivating, but I was most interested in the historic facts of the novel, the way the slave trade was organized, the enmities between the african tribes, which lead to some of them being cought and sold for slaves, the way the traders and the insurance companies evaluated the "merchandise" and the possible losses.

With the exception of Matthew Paris, the ship owner's nephew, none of the main caracters in this novel is likable - on the contrary. But they are all carefully presented and the processes, actions and life experiences that shapped them well explained.

Finally, because I am not a native english speaker, I should like to mention that the book's language was a challenge. The authour makes the very good choice to write in the way his caracters would speak, which is a little difficult for the non native speaker.
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on 20 May 2015
I am rereading this after a couple of years. It has lost none of its intensity or impact. Rather like Manon Lescaut (Abbe Prevost) or Die Wahlverwandschaften (Goethe), he has chosen to write in a rather dry 18th century style to describe horrific events and passionate feelings. It is a real tour de force. The narrative is tight and the contrast between the two protagonists, Paris and Erasmus Kemp, so fraught.
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