Unsworth returns to themes of greed and human rights in this potent sequel to his 1992 Booker Prize–winning novel Sacred Hunger.
Set in 1767, two years after that epic novel on the British slave trade, this is a slimmer, somewhat less ambitious book. But it still has plenty of intellectual heft; Unsworth remains obsessed with exploring the rationalizations and conditional ethics that permit elites to abuse laborers. Erasmus Kemp, one of the lead characters of Sacred Hunger, returns here with two ambitions: to receive financial compensation from the slaves lost on his father’s ship, and to acquire a coal mine that survives in part on the backs of child labor. Kemp is on the wrong side of history in both cases, but Unsworth doesn’t apply the modern reader’s moral certainties to his characters. For instance, Kemp’s legal adversary is Frederick Ashton, an avowed abolitionist, but Ashton bristles at the notion of equality among races; he simply wants black slaves to be free to return to their homelands. A series of lighter subplots run under that main dispute. Sullivan, a crew member from the Kemp family’s slave ship, escapes from prison and goes on a picaresque Grand Tour of England’s underclass; Michael Bordon, born into a mining family, considers a way to acquire his family’s freedom; and Kemp attempts to woo Ashton’s sister, even though their politics diverge. Unsworth’s knowledge of British history, from abolitionism to mining to courts and commerce, is assured and convincing, as is his ear for dialect; his characters’ places on the class ladder become explicit whenever they speak. The novel’s closing pages feel thinner as Unsworth ties together various plot threads, but the message about how much effort is required to effect social justice never feels didactic or unearned.
A sturdy historical novel with fewer pages than Sacred Hunger but no less nuance.