Barry Unsworth returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger , this time following Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767, and to avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy.Read more...
Barry Unsworth returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger, this time following Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767, and to avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing as he goes and sleeping where he can.
His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
In this village, Billy's sister, Nan, and her miner husband, James Bordon, live with their three sons, all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only seven, is enjoying his last summer aboveground.
Meanwhile, in London, a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp wants compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Despite their polarized views on slavery, Ashton's beautiful sister, Jane, encounters Erasmus Kemp and finds herself powerfully attracted to him.
Lord Spenton, who owns coal mines in East-Durham, has extravagant habits and is pressed for money. When he applies to the Kemp merchant bank for a loan, Erasmus sees a business opportunity of the kind he has long been hoping for, a way of gaining entry into Britain's rapidly developingand highly profitable coal and steel industries.
Thus he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for . . .
With historical sweep and deep pathos, Unsworth explores the struggles of the powerless and the captive against the rich and the powerful, and what weight mercy may throw on the scales of justice.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-01-16
- Reviewer: Staff
Unsworth’s sequel to his 1992 Booker Prize–winning Sacred Hunger centers on a 1767 London court case resulting from the slave ship mutiny of the previous novel. Pretrial maneuvering, in-court manipulation, out-of-court negotiations, and post-trial reverberations are shown through the eyes of dedicated abolitionist Frederick Ashton; determined ship owner Erasmus Kemp; captured crew members who would say anything not to be hanged; and lawyers and underwriters who would do anything to protect their interests, along with even other perspectives. The action begins when the Irish fiddler Sullivan flees Newgate Prison, journeying north to the colliery village where a deceased shipmate’s family resides, including a coal miner father who dreams of working above ground and a seven-year-old preparing to work below. Kemp arrives in search of new commercial opportunities. Wryly, and with Austenesque delicacy, Unsworth presents the intricacies of love, competition, and other timeless human emotions, as well as 18th-century law (if slaves thrown overboard were already dying, the insurance company was not liable for lost property, etc.). Having invented his own brand of historical fiction, characterized by research, imagination, and a literate narrator equally adept at penetrating a society’s values or an individual’s heart, Unsworth creates a novel that works both as period piece and indictment of industrial capitalism. If this sequel lacks the freshness of its predecessor, it succeeds in presenting a compelling picture of a transitional moment in English history, not to mention in the development of the English character. Agent: Sheil Land Associates, U.K. (Feb.)