Sacred Hunger

Sacred Hunger - Barry Unsworth

This book is about England and her role in the slave trade. It is also about how men and women thought in the mid-1700s, how they viewed justice and freedom and success, and those of the opposite sex. In its accurate depiction of these times, it is an excellent work of historical fiction.

Here follows a quote from chapter 40, so you can judge how you may react. It is a diary entry written by Paris, the surgeon on the Liverpool Merchant slave ship:
April 26: I continue, in spite of these terrible conditions, to hold long conversations with Delblanc, and they are a solace to me, though I consider him not enough of a realist. He maintains there could be a world, a society without victims and without injustice, where the weakness of one was not an invitation to the strength of another, except to succor or protect. I go so far with him as to believe it true that the moral character of man is formed by what happens to him in the world and that our nature originates in external circumstances. Why then do we languish under wars and tyrannies? Delblanc would say it is due to the harmful effect of government upon us….

Such philosophical thoughts would certainly be typical of the times, 1752, with the Enlightenment in full swing. The writing perfectly mirrors those times. Nevertheless, I found parts quite tedious. It is hard today to put yourself back into that mindset. We do not see the world as they did then! The book describes what is happening in different milieux, for example, a drama performance being planned for a birthday celebration in London, life aboard a slave ship, life in a new British colony and in a renegade “settlement”. Each is done with precision. Unsworthy is depicting different worlds coexisting side by side. The contrast is alarming.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by David Rintoul. It was easy to follow. He expertly switched between different dialects - the speech of blacks, Native Americans, Europeans, the upper-class and the poorest of the English, the Irish and the Scottish! He did not over-emphasize the Pidgin English found in the text. He simply read what was written there in the lines without adding any additional degrading undertone. This I appreciated. For me it is very hard to listen to or read Pidgin English. It gives so little nuance to what the characters are saying or meaning. It is just plain boring!

What I am trying to say is that although the lines perfectly depicted each situation, I still did not enjoy the reading experience. Some authors are able to make another way of thinking so understandable that it is not repulsive. Was it that the author failed to make me empathize with the characters? Was it that there is little humor? Was it that I dislike reading Pidgin English? An excellent work of historical fiction, but not enjoyable to read or listen to. I am not saying it isn’t worth reading.