This book snuck up on me. Given its plot -- an English merchant sends a ship into the Golden Triangle of 1750s slavery, taking trade goods to Africa, bartering for slaves there and transporting them to the New World, and planning to return to England with rum or sugar -- I was not eager to read it. It promised to be a long slog of 630 pages, made essential by my quest to read all the Booker winners and my participation in the Battle of the Prizes - British Version.
Instead, this book turned out to be a rare joy. It is handsomely crafted, with a nice framing device, the thorough but not leaden flavor of historical research, and interesting and thoroughly humanized characters, including Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship's owner, eager to make his way in his father's world of commerce, and Matthew Paris, Kemp's disgraced cousin who travels on the ship as its doctor and conscience. Unexpected twists and turns lead to a splendid mystery/confrontation/resolution that involves my very own backyard of colonial Spanish Florida.
I read all this with growing excitement that a prize-winning English novel could smoothly devolve from Liverpool via Africa to my home state, within the same general fictional time frame as other books I am eager to read (Bartram's Travels and Hitt's Wekiva triology). All roads lead to Florida's wilderness for me these days.
Even if you are not similarly enthralled by Florida, this novel offers a rich reading experience far beyond the events of its plot. The fate of the Liverpool Merchant turns out to involve the varying motivations of men of commerce, the challenges of navigating social conventions when they contradict one's own beliefs, and the possible perfectibility of human social and personal relationships in a primitive paradise. Unsworth's ability to stay true to his tale while skillfully exploring these larger issues makes this novel one of the Booker's best.
Hughes the climber, on lookout in the crow's nest, heard the shouted orders and felt the ship quiver through her length as she was brought closer to the wind. A mackerel sky was building to westward, with dark banks of stormbreeders low on the horizon. But there was some sun still, lying flat on the sea. He watched the gulls which earlier that day had found the ship. They were following on the starboard side, fewer now, but in good number still, which made him think they were in for no more than light squalls. . . . He noted again how the birds rode the wind, how the dying sun flashed on their breasts. Below them the sea was riven with gashes. The wind was rising. He looked away from the birds at last, to eastward. The horizon on that side was pale and clear still and Hughes saw, faint and ragged but unmistakable, the shapes of land. He cupped hands to mouth and bawled the fact to the darkening sky.
Note: this review is also posted on my blog, Hotchpot Cafe.