I can but echo the comments others have made about how utterly magnificent "Sacred Hunger" is. I recommend it without hesitation. Rich with detail and sharply drawn, it makes an impression not quickly forgotten. Ostensibly the story of a slave ship joining the British merchant fleet in the 1750s, Unsworth manages to capture the spirit of the times, though I am not sure if it is ultimately those times or our times.
The primary dramatic tension in the narrative arises from Unsworth's portrait of two cousins. On the one hand, Matthew Paris is a sort of poor cousin who was imprisoned for questioning Anglican dogma. In despair and somewhat resigned to humiliation, he agrees to serve as the physician on the slave ship. While he seeks only to degrade himself, he cannot escape degrading others. Erasmus Kemp, the owner's son, is a type still very much with us. The reader loathes him, and all like him, as he understands no morality but money and the pursuit of profit, the "sacred hunger" referred to in the title. Although inexorably juxtaposed, the cousins sprang from the same soil, from the same genes, and are related in ways impossible to sever. This tension remains familiar in our cultural impasse. Like it or not, we are all a part of the system that produced the slave ships in the first place. We are all products of capitalism, less important than the wealth of nations, and all of us benefit, in ways large or small, from the exploitation of faceless people who live far away in presumed darkness.
The image of America itself in the novel reinforces this ambivalence, and yet provides the only hope. As the British colonized America, from Maine to Florida, slavery was an accepted and acceptable part of the economic system. No loud voices protested; only soft voices, far out of the mainstream, might have dared to complain. Yet, after the slaves and this crew in this novel overthrow the captain, while he is in the process of committing mass murder in the name of cutting losses, they find their way to Florida and establish a commune of sorts. The latter part of the novel portrays the settlement after twelve years, when tensions began to arise, again, between those who promulgate the theories of equality and those who seek gain at others' expense. America was their only hope, their only safe port, and ultimately is the hope of all of us. In spite of the forces of wealth and power arrayed against us, in spite of steps backward during reactionary periods, things are possible here that can only be dreamed elsewhere.
Rich and disturbing, beautiful and horrible, "Sacred Hunger" accomplishes more in one volume than many writers can accomplish in a career. It draws us back from visions of utopia while it makes us hope for something better. As the captain said earnestly enough, "If they would make the best of their condition, a slaveship could be a happy ship." Here is a toast to all who refuse to accept their conditions, whether as a slave in the 1750s or a corporate employee these days. Read this book and think, if you dare.