Sunday, April 27, 2008

Trevor's Review of Unsworth's Sacred Hunger

"Soon after midnight the first of the land breeze began making along the river and Thurso ordered sail to be got up and all to be made ready for purchasing anchor. At two they weighed an got out to sea, the wind by this time giving a good offing. In the cover of darkness, as quietly as possible, the Liverpool Merchant began to steer a course south-eastward. but when the ship met the deep sea well, the rhythm of her movement changed and the people in the cramped and fetid darkness of the hold, understanding that they had lost all hope of returning to their homes set up a great cry of desolation and despair that carried over the water to the other ships in the road and the slaves in the holds of the ships heard it and answered with wild shouts and screams, so that for people lying awake in villages along the shore and solitary fishermen up before dawn, there was a period when the night resounded with the echoes of lamentation."

Sacred Hunger is a difficult read--passages like this one are piercing, painful to really digest and admit. But this is an important book. Unsworth's insight into the complex motives behind greed, dominion, mercy, and kindness make this much more than a simple story about a slave ship in the mid-1700s. In fact, in this book we see these emotions and attributes come up in almost all relationships: between man and woman, between captain and sailor, between English and Native-American, between one tribe and another, between parents and children. Its a complex world, but Unsworth makes it flow smoothly. Also, even though there are many relationships which all are used to further themes, this book is far from contrived. The characters and their relationships are real and familiar--that's what's scary.

In Sacred Hunger there is mutiny aboard a slave ship. The whites and blacks begin their own community in south Florida. Meanwhile, the ship owner's son single-mindedly seeks revenge against the crew, particularly against his cousin, the ship's doctor. But it is not that simple. Even while the new community is attempting to grow into a free society, where there are no distinctions between blacks and whites, Unsworth shows just how difficult such a task is.

In the dialogue, Unsworth has the ability to show the feelings of the slave traders while instilling pure irony:

"'Tis a terrible trade, them not in it will never know the hardships, to see your profits dribblin' in the sea an' nothin' you can do."

Such passages are amusing at the same time they evoke reprehension. But in a frightening way they made me think about how many awful things we do today without quite understanding how ridiculous our position is. Then there are the illuminating, yet discouraging passages:

"Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others."

This book recognizes the difficulties inherent in trying to live in an equal society. In fact, some of its interesting passages deal with building a community through rhetorical strategy. While I didn't feel like it was a fully-fleshed theme, story-telling and legend-making definitely are important, especially since the story is based on the ramblings of an old mulatto many years after the story has ended:

"But mainly he talked--of a Liverpool ship, of a white father who had been a doctor aboard her and had never died, a childhood of wonders in a place of eternal sunshine, jungle hummocks, great flocks of white birds rising from flooded savannahs, a settlement where white and black lived together in perfect accord."

This is a great contender for the Best of the Booker over the last forty years. I wish it had more attention, especially considering this anniversary year for the US and last year's for the UK--200 years since the abolition of the slave-trade across the Atlantic. If only it had truly ended then--but Unsworth's book offers some bitter insight into why it didn't.
5 stars out of 5.

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