Review: Sacred hunger – Barry Unsworth

It feels like it has been a while since I’ve really been gripped by one of the Booker winners, but somewhere between the host of likeable and hateful characters, the tough subject matter and a good to and fro between times and places I really did get pulled into this one.

The novel tells the story of an 18th century slave ship sailing the golden triangle, the lives of its sailors and the family of the owner – Mainly Erasmus Kemp and his older cousin Matthew Parris who’s fallen from grace by becoming bankrupt and having a short spell in prison.

You get an insight into the cheapness of life at this period in time, first through the method of finding of ship mates for the deck, sold on by tavern owners or family members to pay a debt – even before the attitude to the life and death of a slave emerges, care only being taken with their lives because of the price obtainable for a healthy slave. Brutality is then added to the mix through the vivid description of the whipping of a ship mate on board early on in the boats journey.

The novel runs two stories in parallel, that of the slave ship, which Matthew Parris is sailing on, and the continuing and starkly contrasting life of Erasmus Kemp back in England whose primary concern is initially of which suit to wear and how much to powder his hair. I enjoy novels like this that jump around as it keeps you on your toes, keeps you guessing how and when the stories will interlink again and what the connections  are between characters.

In summary, this isn’t an easy subject matter to read about but it’s well worth the discomfort to bring home an understanding of the brutality of slavery and those who made attempts to try and right the many wrongs of the trade.

Erasmus – on women.

 “Never in his whole life had he heard a woman intrude her opinion into a conversation on business matters between men”


Paris – realising what the slave trade is really about

“In that same moment Paris knew he’d done a wicked thing to sail with this ship”



“the successful cannot be unhappy, that would be a contradiction in terms”

“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others. Indeed, it will teach him the way.”

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