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Brutality and Redemption in 'Sacred Hunger'

1992 was a good year for the Booker Prize. It was awarded to The English Patient. Michael Ondaatje's book went on to became a favorite among literary readers all over the world and a landmark film that, amazingly, disproved the dictum that a beautiful book is always a disappointing movie. The novel is arguably the best-known title to have emerged from the Booker competition in the last 20 years.

Which explains, I suppose, why not many people remember that it actually shared the prize that year. That's right, The English Patient in fact tied for the Booker with a novel that is still relatively unknown in America. That second novel is called Sacred Hunger, and I've rarely heard anyone who has read it call it anything less than magnificent.

In my opinion it's a masterpiece.

Sacred Hunger is written by the British novelist Barry Unsworth. It tells the story of the Liverpool Merchant, an 18th century slaving ship that engages in the infamous Triangle Trade. The largely conscripted crew carries firearms to the west coast of Africa and trades them there for slaves, who are packed into a ship's hold with a ceiling so low they cannot rise from their knees during the entire Atlantic crossing. This is the infamous "middle passage" that brings them to the West Indies, where they are then sold for sugar that will be brought back to England.

It's as brutal a portrait of human behavior as you're ever going to read.

I like my masterpieces straight up. It's 640 pages without a literary trick. NO experimentation with prose. No stream of consciousness. Just page after page of the most harrowing and vivid writing about the sea and the ship and the animalistic brutality of man upon man. Unsworth takes you up the humming mainmast, throws you sideways in the house-high waves and chains you inside the foul underdeck where waves of human excrement slosh through the slaves' quarters as the merciless sea — charted by the equally merciless captain — rocks the hull outside.

And yet at the same time the book is also laced with a gentle, nimble understanding of the contrary impulses of human nature. Unsworth brings us into the minds of men two centuries dead: the minds of rummed-up sailors in the wharfside brothels and of African villagers hunted by their countrymen across the hills of Guinea; the minds of slaves in chains and of the men holding the keys; the minds of those who dream of profit and those who dream of God, and those who dream, as many do in this book, of the two together.

And so, for all the ruthless chase of that profit — the sacred hunger of the title — the book eventually becomes a paean to man's more noble, if weaker, urges, as well: a paean to human eloquence, to utopian striving (despite its folly) and to the redemptive possibility, above all, of science and learning. I won't tell you how this happens — I hate even the whiff of a spoiler. I'll say only that Unsworth puts a man of growing conscience on the top deck of this ship of brutes, a man of letters — watching everything with a learned and philosophic eye that eventually rouses him, as one can only hope learning will do, to action.

I first came upon this book nearly a decade ago; it moved me as deeply as anything I'd ever read; it also inspired me to expand my own ambitions as a writer. When you write books, it pays to read great ones, to see how other writers have made the impossible possible. The scope of Sacred Hunger's adventure; the seriousness of its ideas alongside the haunting descriptions of the sea and the slaves and the slavers. The sheer massiveness of its imagination. It made me aware once again that there are two kinds of books: the ones that endeavor to slip themselves into the world we know and the ones that create their own.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ethan Canin