Monday, August 6, 2012

A Tribute to Barry Unsworth

Our book club just finished reading and discussing Barry Unsworth's, Sacred Hunger.  Some of us read it  for the second time.  A sequel entitled, The Quality of Mercy, slated for August, had many of us feeling that it would be good to go back and take another look at the first one. When mulling over this idea, we stated that in all the years of reading, in comparison with the many books we have read, Sacred Hunger remains one of our great favorites. Our book club is  not alone in that assessment: it won the Man Booker Prize, the top honor for literary fiction, in 1992, tying with Michael Onadatje's, The English Patient. Being that it was extremely unusual to have a tie, one can only imagine the endless discussion and I daresay, heated arguments, taking place by the esteemed panel of judges. Since they could not give one even a slight edge over the other,  they settled on co-winners which I am sure neither author minded.

When asked what Sacred Hunger is about and answering that the drama takes place on a slave ship,  understandably there was some reluctance.  After all, could there be a more disturbing topic? We all have a sense of the truly ghastly conditions on board those vessels of despair, so therefore, one might ask, what more do we need to know? Plenty, as it turns out.

Unsworth puts us in the mind of the merchant who builds  the ship and sets out on this endeavor. Therein lies the dramatic tension, coupled with a growing awareness of the genuine ability we share as human beings to justify almost anything. It was perfectly legal at the time and a good business; the reality of conditions on board were an entirely different matter.  They were to set sail from England carrying trade goods which would enable them to acquire slaves. They would then pick up the cargo in Africa, that's right cargo, and deliver the said goods to Jamaica.  The plan was to sell  the slaves there, in exchange for sugar and rum. They would then sail back to England with a ship full of the spoils of free labor,  sell the goods and  make a tidy sum in the process.

Because few sailors would work on  slave ships they were often “Shanghaied” into service, making their experience not much better, except for the fact that they would at least earn a wage. Conditions on board were described with such clarity that one simply comes away with a sense of awe at the descriptive powers inherent in Barry Unsworth's work.  Each morning the slaves would be brought up on deck, with shackles clanging, and made to dance to the fiddle, a practice widely employed, in order to keep them fit.  The strength of this marvelous book lies in the author's power to create an inescapable mood.
Here is an excerpt from page 233:

"The moon was high and clear of cloud, astoundingly radiant, eclipsing the stars. Moonlight gleamed in a sheet of silver over the marshes and flats of mud they had crossed to come here, so cluttered and tawdry by day, all unified and resplendent now as if lying under some moment of blessing. And for a moment this transforming moonlight was confused in Paris's mind with the sunlight of earlier, the form of the woman edged with fire against the bars. 'It is not even true that I want to die,' he said, and with this ultimate confession he saw the moonlit levels run together and glimmer, as if washed in some thin solution of silver, and then blur to bright webs, as the tears, held long in check, came freely now to his eyes,"         

 The  author, described as slim and elegant,  was born in Wingate, England to a family of miners. He lived in Tuscany in later years, devoting his time to writing.  I was shocked to learn that he left this world recently, on the same day as fellow writer Ray Bradbury, June 5, 2012.   Was Unsworth fated to be paired with others? If so, it is of little consequence. His writing will find its place among the greats of our time, and it will live on.

If writing itself is a journey, then tales of an epic voyage that goes badly wrong, as if ill fated from the start, take their place among the greatest stories ever told. So it is with Sacred Hunger. Place this novel along side Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness; it is that good.


goldensylph said...

I'll definitely have to read this. Thanks for sharing. It is something I would definitely like...and having tied for the Booker prize is no small feat.

elizabethbrinton said...

Thank you for the comment. You will not be disappointed.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

I'm not familiar with Barry Unsworth - you make his writing sound like it should be required reading ! Next time I visit the library,I'll be sure to pick up a copy of one of his novels. Thanks for a good post, Liz

elizabethbrinton said...

I would be happy to loan you Sacred Hunger any time. When I went to re-read it, I scanned our many book shelves and came up empty handed. It made me happy to know I had given the first copy to someone, and happier still to purchase it again.