This afternoon, while sitting by the pool, I finished Sacred Hunger by
Barry Unsworth. It was one of the main pegs in my summer reading list
and I’m so glad I read it.
I selected it because I really, really liked Unsworth’s book, Losing Nelson.
This book was no disappointment. It’s the story of a slave ship. It
leaves from Liverpool England, loaded with trinkets and fabrics and
pots and pans, heads towards the coast of Africa to pick up slaves
in return for bars of gold and the housewares on board. Then the ship
heads west towards Jamaica and the West Indies to sell the slaves and
pick up sugar and rum. In this triangular trade routine, the ship then
returns to England to sell the sugar and rum.
Opening line: “The ship he meant was the Liverpool Merchant,
Captain Saul Thurso, and he had never seen her, though she carried
the seeds of all his dreams in her hold.”
It’s this Liverpool Merchant which drew me in—–the building of
her before she set sail. And we learn of every spar and timber, of
batten markers, and how peeling an orange is similar to knowing
how the edges of the ship’s heavy planks will have to curve to fit
the ship’s hull fore and aft. Thurso lovingly follows the creation of the
ship, step by step, savoring every nail. Along with him is the owner
of the slave ship, William Kemp, who has banked his last living
hope on this venture to recoup major losses and avert bankruptcy.
For the most part, we are on board ship throughout the novel, but
there are intervals when we are with Erasmus Kemp, William’s son.
He does not sail with the ship (nor does William). Erasmus is an
ambitious young man, a cotton broker, and is courting Sarah Wolpert.
Her father is not especially willing to favor the match, and discreetly
looks into the private financial affairs of William Kemp.
It’s an interesting sidelight that Sarah’s friends are rehearsing The
Tempest and Erasmus is drawn into playacting unwillingly, but does
so to be near Sarah.
Before the ship sails, there is a family dinner gathering and we meet
Paris Matthew, a cousin of Erasmus, who has just been discharged
from prison. Because of a childhood incident, Erasmus has a deep
hatred of Paris and is resentful that he is even included at the
It appears that Paris Matthew will be the ship’s surgeon when the
Liverpool Merchant sails. Paris has recently lost his young wife and
their unborn baby due to the violence when he was arrested—for a
civil matter–standing up for his convictions, but against the laws of
the Church of England.
After some chapters of “finding crew” for the ship—and finding them
takes us to some pretty seedy places—we are set to sail. This is a
section of the book where taking some notes on the various crew
members will pay off in later pages. I started, but didn’t keep up
very well. Unsworth paints some very salty characters and their
off-color banter is humorous and I won’t say heartwarming, but
at least gives the reader some taste of the different personalities
that we’ll be living with for the next 600 pages.
I’ll stop here and tell you that things don’t go well. We’re on
the ship for months and life becomes cheap. The story never
slows, though, and we keep on reading and reading. Shipboard
is our only life for days and days. The reader wonders what ever
became of Erasmus . . .
I’d say that the last 150 pages or so of the book are the best of all.
And, you. won’t. believe. it. but BUTTONS are part of the plot!
I’m not kidding. How great is that?
The whole book is a great big fat yarn that makes terrific summer
reading. I’m going to put a star after it in my book record.