Anthony Cummins

Slightly strained

An escaped convict who took part in a slave-ship mutiny and a Liverpudlian banker hungry for land in a north-eastern pit village are the main characters of this novel set in 1767, which is a sequel to Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth’s excellent, Booker-sharing yarn about the slave trade (it and The English Patient won in 1992). The convict, Sullivan, is an Irish fiddler who slips out of Newgate and makes for Durham, where he hopes to find the family of Billy Blair, a dead shipmate and fellow mutineer. In the earlier book, Sullivan and Blair rose up against their captain as, en route to the Caribbean, he prepared to toss overboard sick slaves who would fetch more in insurance than on sale. The rebels and their African captives wound up in the Florida jungle, where they lived for 12 years as equals (ish), to the chagrin of Kemp — the banker whose suicidally debt-ridden father funded the voyage.

Kemp, in the belief that Sullivan et al stole his father’s cargo, crossed the Atlantic to bring the ship’s crew before the law. The new book begins with him eager to see them hanged, while Sullivan suffers various pratfalls on the road to Durham, as apparent well-wishers con him out of what few pennies he has.

Two other plot strands concern characters not present in Sacred Hunger: a miner named Bordon, who longs to own a plot of land; and a London-based abolitionist, Ashton, who seeks a landmark ruling in an abduction trial that could kill the slave trade. The novel makes no bones about the coincidences required to bring together these storylines, which cluster around Kemp: he takes a fancy to both Bordon’s mine (its struggling owner needs a loan) and Ashton’s sister, Jane.

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