I recently met with a book club to discuss a novel they selected to read and discuss with me — Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. The historical novel provided a lot to talk about. Indeed, at more than 600 pages, the award-winning fictional story about the 18th century British triangle trade proved to be difficult to digest, yet it engaged everyone and drew remarks about a kind of narrative depth not often encountered these publishing days.
Events in the plot revolve around the Liverpool Merchant sailing from England to Africa, where the captain is designated to purchase slaves he must then sell in the Caribbean nations in exchange for rum, sugar, coffee and other goods. Those goods are then sold in England for profit that will enhance the worth of William Kemp, the ship’s owner. Unsworth does not hold back regarding the brutal realities of the slave trade, writing cringe-worthy scenes that take place on the ship and driving home the unsettling message of man’s cruelty to man.
Heavy stuff. One book club member was so overwhelmed by the barbaric treatment of the slaves, she began talking about it before we’d had a chance to introduce ourselves. It was as if she had to put it out on the table to get it out of herself — the humiliation, debasement and senseless punishment (whips and chains) not only rained down on the slaves but also the ship’s crew. I asked her to pause for a moment for the introductions, and then turned to her afterwards to continue. I thought she would say she hated the book, but not so. Like every one else, she found herself absorbed in the unforgettable storyline, beautiful writing and powerful characters.
Here are other highlights from the discussion.
One person said she found the size of the book daunting. Then she revealed she tried to read it in one week as an e-book. With e-books, unlike printed books, you can’t see the journey ahead all-at-once in chapters and page count. You can’t flip through an e-book and determine the scope of reading at hand. Had she seen the physical book, she would’ve started it sooner. I can’t remember if she finished it or not — I’m thinking not.
Another person was enthralled by Barry Unsworth’s writing. A few times during the two hours, she picked up the book and read passages she’d marked. Gorgeous, moving passages that showcased Unsworth’s talent. One, I remember in particular, described a painful moment for the ship’s surgeon followed by a beautiful description of light. I wondered out loud whether Unsworth intentionally wrote about the light as a halo effect on this good character, suggesting it as a narrative tactic he may have used among characters who had a conscience, or a potential for good.
One person, new to reading in her life, provided some of the most insightful comments. The one that jumps to mind is her perception that Unsworth siloed his characters. Each one, she felt, had been created with a strait-jacket of characteristics that made them predictable. I’ve returned to that comment after the event in my thoughts because I didn’t want to agree with it at the time — I was too impressed with Unsworth’s craft to allow a flaw — but now, I think, she’s right.
Another person asked how the main character Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship owner, could be filled with so much anger and revenge. What is driving him, she asked. I still can see her expression of confused wonder about such ugly human nature. Kemp is a character who has a prosperous life yet every fiber of him radiates an angry need to control people. Her question sparked conversation about how we become who we are as adults.
The person who spoke out her distress during introductions about the brutality in the story said she felt despair at the book’s end, failing to see redemption. But it is there — hope, too — and I used the story of Jean Valjean being given the candlesticks by the bishop in Les Misérables to illustrate how Unsworth creates the possibility for Erasmus Kemp to change. She got it. I could see it in her eyes.
Finally, one person repeatedly commented in her enthusiasm about Sacred Hunger that it was the most satisfying, profound book she’d read in decades. She wanted more.
Before we said our good-byes, I asked what everyone would do with the book going forward. Almost all said they would give it to a friend, wrap it as a holiday gift or recommend it. Hear, hear, I say, as well as bravo! for the readers who delved into this exceptional book with focused, unbridled energy. It was great fun.
The meeting with this book club was a result of the 2012 WOSU Chefs in the City fundraising event. The book selection process — how they chose Sacred Hunger — was written about in a previous blog post on The Longest Chapter.