18th century greed and utopia

Barry Unsworth and Ray Bradbury died last week, the one a highly praised, award-winning writer of historical novels and the other a renowned sci-fi writer. I keep scanning the bookshelf holding my college English lit paperbacks, searching for a science fiction anthology I’m sure contains Bradbury’s work, but I don’t see the memorable psychedelic book  cover. It’s possible I gave the book away because I concluded, after reading it those many years ago, that science fiction and I aren’t compatible. The genre doesn’t generate impulse buys, late-night reading and that breathless desire to stack the reading table, much as I’ve tried. This is a familiar refrain I sing here. But what about Barry Unsworth?

News of his death in Perugia, Italy on June 5 drove me to find out about his work, 17 novels, which are less familiar to me than Bradbury’s oeuvre. Of the 17, the novel that rose to the top in my search, with consistent praise from critics and readers alike, was Sacred Hunger, a novel frequently described as “the book that shared the 1992 Booker Prize with The English Patient.” Most know Michael Ondaatje’s best-seller that was made into an Oscar award-winning movie, but not Unsworth’s novel, a 630-page thematic focus on greed and man’s cruelty to man, as it tells the story of the 18th century British slave trade.

If that kind of plotline sounds too heavy for summer reading, I’m thinking the engrossing “masterpiece” aspect of the book puts it in the running for a seasonal choice. Because isn’t that what some of us want? Not the lightness of a beach read, or the titillation of a gray-shaded sex boiler, rather an epic escape into another time and place that soar us into the wee hours of these long summer nights, a literate kidnapping of our imagination and intellect. The Guardian’s obituary says of Unsworth’s work, “All his stories start with the pressure of a secret that needs to be told. All leave the reader haunted.” Well, that got me. Sacred Hunger is now on the summer reading table.

 Here’s a summary of  its plot, given by the Man Booker Prize in their online archive:

“A blasphemous outcast, Matthew Paris boards the ‘Liverpool Merchant’ as ship’s doctor as it embarks on a mercantile voyage in the slave trade. An illness breaks out among the slaves and crew between Guinea and the West Indies, and slaves are ordered to be tossed overboard in order to claim the insurance. Illness gives rise to mutiny, the captain is killed, and, with Paris as one of the leaders, the ship sails for Florida to establish an egalitarian, interracial society. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, the loss of the ship has financially ruined its owner, Kemp, who hangs himself. Twelve years later, upon hearing rumours of a utopian community of blacks and whites in Florida, Kemp’s son sets out for revenge.”

Author Ethan Canin selected Sacred Hunger in his 2008 NPR “You Must Read This” selection and said, “I’ve rarely heard anyone who has read it call it anything less than magnificent.” And that’s what I, too, kept finding — countless statements describing the novel as a masterpiece, not only for its plot and character development, but also for its overarching message about profit, greed and inhumanity. Herbert Mitgang wrote about Sacred Hunger in the New York Times, December 1992: “In this brilliant narrative, it is impossible not to feel that Mr. Unsworth’s characters represent something larger: the eternal clash between good and greed — sometimes within the same person — and the dream of an Arcadian life where people live free and equal in peace.”

Barry Unsworth’s novels Pascali’s Island (published in the United States as The Idol Hunter) and Morality Play were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1980 and 1995. His most recent novel, published earlier this year, is Quality of Mercy. It continues the story of Sacred Hunger. In 2011, Unsworth told the BBC, “The fascination for writing historical novels is that things were different but they were the same. You say something that is true of the 18th Century, but at the same time you are saying something that is true of our time as well.”