Barry Unsworth won the 1992 Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, his incredible novel about independence, madness, duty, dominance, justice, suicide, loyalty, greed, hope, commerce, power, family, culture, desire, violence, education, marriage, politics, philosophy, self-doubt, government, fatherhood, adventure, friendship, and pride.
And slavery. Specifically, British slave trade in the 1700s. William Kemp stakes his failing fortunes on a slave ship to ply the "Triangle Trade" of selling English manufactured goods to African slavers, slaves to Jamaican sugar plantations, and sugar to England. He installs his nephew, Matthew Paris, a heretical and bereaved scientist seeking to escape his tragic past, as the ship's physician.
When things go horribly wrong with Kemp's plan, his son Erasmus vows to restore the family fortunes and good name, culminating in his obsessive journey to the swamps of colonial Florida to find a rumored Utopian society of ex-slaves and sailors, governed, he fears, by his hated cousin.
Whew! There is a lot going on in the 600+ pages of this gorgeous and horrible and wonderful story. To say that Sacred Hunger is engrossing barely touches the surface. True, Unsworth's main characters live in their heads more than their hearts – little is shown about their emotions beyond anger or pride. Instead, Unsworth focuses on the doubts and hopes that drive William, Erasmus, and Matthew, explaining that "doubt is the ally of hope, not its enemy, and together they made all the blessing" these men had in their tragic lives.
Sacred Hunger is a book that will keep any reader thinking for a long time after the amazing plot concludes.
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Sacred Hunger counts as one of my Booker Prize choices for the 2011 Battle of the Prizes, British Version and as my final book for the 2011 Chunkster Challenge.