Sunday, June 13, 2010

Matthew's Review - Sacred Hunger - 1992

After immediately finishing Rites of Passage, a novel about a long sea journey, I decided it would be wise to start another novel about a long sea journey, this time, an even longer journey and novel! I picked up Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize, and after what seems like an eternity, I finished it.

Sacred Hunger is primarily concerned with the Atlantic slave trade of the 18th century, personified by two cousins, one the son of the ship owner who enjoys a life of privilege and stays in England, and the other, a disgraced surgeon seeking to debase himself by joining the ship. For most of the novel, we follow their different paths, in stunning detail, as the surgeon and the ship pick up slaves in Africa. However, things change irrevocably when a storm blows the ship off course, and the crew mutiny. We pick up the two cousins' stories a decade later and they finally meet in circumstances no one could predict.

As aforementioned, the detail is stunning. Unsworth has clearly done a massive amount of research. This novel is a masterclass in historical fiction. Paramount to this, Sacred Hunger is obviously a postcolonial novel, at once looking back and rewriting history, but there is no easy conclusion that Unsworth comes to.

The sacred hunger of the title is greed, greed justified by social standing, government, economic systems, and civilization itself, it seems. Unsworth dismantles the justification with the last third of the novel, but never making any monochromatic conclusions. There is no way to discuss this without spoiling this last third of the novel, which I will not do.

Suffice it so say that Unsworth's novel is never easy in terms of morality, but it is always easy and enjoyable to read. Sacred Hunger doesn't drown the reader in archaic and period language, and the author never embarks on long passages as pastiches from 18th century novels, such as Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.

The novel does also function as a gripping adventure story. Even with all the theme and metaphor mired in murky morality, the novel remains exciting for most of its length. This is a very hard balancing act and Unsworth pulls it off mostly.

However the novel isn't perfect. For most of the novel I found the cousin who stayed in England to be more interesting than the cousin on the ship, or rather, the main character on the main thrust of the plot. I liked the thread of the ship, but certainly Unsworth's depiction of capitalism and greed in London was more captivating (pun not intended). The ship's thread suffers from too many characters and too many deaths, and the best part of the journey, the mutiny, is relayed by flashback and reminisces, robbing it of impact.

Sacred Hunger, despite these qualms, is a great historical novel, and one that should be taught alongside other postcolonial novels. It is rich in period detail, rich in theme and character, and never takes the easy way out of its exceedingly difficult and sticky moral situations.

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