Sacred Hunger | Critical Review by Herbert Mitgang

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Sacred Hunger.
This section contains 1,056 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Herbert Mitgang

Critical Review by Herbert Mitgang

SOURCE: "Books of the Times: Trading in Misery on a Doomed Slave Ship," in New York Times Book Review, December 23, 1992.

In the following review, Mitgang calls Sacred Hunger "a remarkable novel in every way."

Reading Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth's long and beautifully written novel, you know you are in the hands of a master craftsman when you find yourself slowing down on page after page to savor his thoughts and words.

A hypocritical shipowner engaged in the slave trade: "Wealth had not dimmed his need to be liked, his desire to appear knowledgeable."

The shipowner's self-praise for including a doctor on his slaver's roster: "God balanced the ledgers. Nothing went unrecognized. A good deed was an entry on the credit side, a bill drawn on destiny which could not fail to be met one day."

The slave ship's cruel captain: "He felt the beginnings of rage, always his willing confederate."

Before setting sail to Africa from Liverpool, the captain and the doctor, his nephew, "touched glasses and drank, but it was the spirit of enmity they imbibed that afternoon, and both of them knew it."

He writes of a half-blind former slave in New Orleans, "He was small-boned and delicately made and he had a way of tilting his head up when he spoke, as if seeking to admit more light to the curdled crystals of his eyes."

Sacred Hunger can be read as a straightforward story of the British slave trade in the middle of the 18th century. Right down to the last impressed seaman and knotted lash, the novel's specificity is so detailed that you accept the characters as true to life and the horrible scenes as an accurate picture of the trade in human beings. But in this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth's characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed—sometimes within the same person—and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.

A slave ship is being built for a proud Liverpudlian businessman, a member of the newly formed Company of Merchants Trading to Africa, created for what is known as the triangular trade. Goods, muskets and cheap trinkets are traded in Africa in exchange for blacks from other raiding blacks; the slaves are carried to America or the West Indies and sold there; tobacco, rum and sugar are then bought with the proceeds and resold in England.

The slave ship, called the Liverpool Merchant, has certain special features. The swivel guns on its quarterdecks are mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts. The ship's rails are thickened to make death leaps more difficult. In the hold, at the lowest level of the ship, there is room for 200 slaves, tightly packed together. In language that echoes Joseph Conrad, the author describes the ship's maiden voyage on the first leg of the triangular trade:

And so, in the course of that morning, the Liverpool Merchant was turned loose into the Irish Sea. With her mainsails set and a fair wind from the southeast, released from tethering rope and umbilical cable, she was for the first time in her life unfettered, free—save for her own groaning tensions—between wind and current.

On board is the novel's hero, the scholarly young doctor. While unsympathetic to the barbarities of buying and selling the human goods that have enriched his uncle, he has his own reasons for taking a job on the Liverpool Merchant. Having served a prison term on vague grounds of defending free speech, and because his wife and infant have recently died, he is seeking a new life.

But the Queeg-like captain, an experienced professional in the slave trade, quickly recognizes the young doctor as his enemy. He doesn't want the waterfront dregs who make up the ship's crew to be treated for illnesses and beatings; the doctor's role is only to keep them healthy enough to work and pay off their drinking debts. When the enslaved families, made servile by their nakedness, are bought on the western coast of Africa, their treatment is even more demeaning. With a hot iron, the slaves are branded like cattle with the initial of the ship's owner: the men on their chests, the women on their buttocks. A smell of burned flesh hangs in the air over the Liverpool Merchant.

Again and again, the captain tells the doctor that a prime male slave is worth hard cash on the auction block in Jamaica or Virginia, and that a gentleman can live well in England for a year on the proceeds brought by a single slave. Watching the slaves stripped and branded, humiliated and whipped, the doctor finds that he too is becoming degraded.

While the Liverpool Merchant is crossing the Atlantic, the author keeps a secondary story spinning in Liverpool itself. The shipowner's son has fallen in love with an amateur actress, part of a young circle of friends who are rehearsing a play. And which of Shakespeare's dramas has Mr. Unsworth so cleverly chosen to remind the reader of the two different, but parallel lives, led by the two cousins: one on the perilous high seas, the other safely at home? The Tempest, with its shipboard scenes, inferno, storm, shipwreck and attempt to enjoy an idyllic life on a desert island.

Without straining too hard, the rehearsal of The Tempest can be read as a metaphor for what occurs in the harsh reality of Sacred Hunger. Prospero's line "Abhorred slave!" brings together the events in the play and the novel. But it isn't necessary for a reader to do so because Mr. Unsworth's main story is propelled by its own strong narrative engine.

In Sacred Hunger, disease spreads, the crew mutinies, the captain goes to his just reward and the Liverpool Merchant ends up shipwrecked on the coast of Florida. There a secret community is formed by the doctor, the sailors and the slaves, living together in what is an uninhabited land only lightly under the domination of Spain. But the story is not yet over; the two cousins, one driven by greed and revenge, the other by a dream, living on opposites sides of the world, will meet again.

Mr. Unsworth's book, which this year shared Britain's top fiction award, the Booker Prize, with The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, is a remarkable novel in every way.

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This section contains 1,056 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Herbert Mitgang