The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

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The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Two years have passed since the events of Unsworth's Booker Prize-winning 'Sacred Hunger' in this sequel, set in 1767, concerning the plight of both the working-class poor and the slave trade. Mercy is in short supply when self-interest abounds, then as now.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 978-0091937126

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'The Quality of Mercy' picks up the story of the author's Booker Prize-winning 'Sacred Hunger' although if you haven't read the first book, you won't be greatly disadvantaged as the relevant story lines are explained. What you might miss out on is some of the feeling for a few of the main characters, most notably the Irish fiddler, Sullivan who, when this book picks up in spring 1767, has just escaped from prison where the remaining shipmates of the slave ship, the 'Liverpool Merchant' await their trial of piracy. Slavery and abolition thereof remains a central theme of this sequel, but the book draws some poignant similarities with those in bondage due to poverty, and particularly those working in the coal mines of County Durham.

Unsworth offers four character threads by which he weaves his story together. Firstly there is the aforementioned Sullivan, who decides to venture north to Durham on foot to fulfill his pledge to his dead friend Billy Blair that he will visit Blair's family to relate the story of his passing. This then is the second thread. Billy's sister, Nan, is married with three sons and her husband and two oldest boys already work in the coal mine and her youngest, aged just seven, is about to start down the pit himself. The third character story is the mercenary Erasmus Kemp, whose ownership of the 'Liverpool Merchant' after the death of his father, means that he is the one seeking legal recourse on the returned sailors. He is also now a banker and when an opportunity to loan a sum to the owner of a coal mine in, you've guessed it, Durham arises, he heads to the same location as the unfortunate Sullivan.

These three story threads fit nicely together. The fraying at the edges though comes in the form of a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, and his sister, Jane, who develops an unlikely mutual attraction with the ideologically opposed Erasmus Kemp. Ashton's involvement in the story initially starts with a second case pertaining to the lost ship, but once this is resolved his focus switches to an entirely different slave-related case which, while affording the opportunity to make valid points about slavery and to expose the vested interests that the rich had in opposing abolition, seemed to me like one narrative thread too many. In the end, the Sullivan story rather falls by the wayside and he is such an engaging character that this is something of a loss to the book as a whole.

There's no denying the depth of historic research that has gone into this book and the descriptions of the life in the Durham coal mines is particularly poignant. Equally impressive is the quality of the writing. Unsworth frequently uses long, and sometimes complex, sentences which force the reader to slow down and do much to draw the reader into the slower pace of the past.

Apart from Jane and Sullivan, few characters offer much in the way of 'mercy' and rather a lot in the way of self-interest. Then again, Jane, as an unmarried, privileged woman of the 1700s had greater scope for idealistic values, while poor old Sullivan never has much to lose in the first place.

It is seldom that movie sequels live up to the first story and so too, often with novels. It's a book that still has much to commend it, but if were to ask me to recommend only one Barry Unsworth book, then I'd still go with 'Sacred Hunger'.

Our thanks to the kind people at Hutchinson for inviting us to review this book.

There's more great historical fiction on this year's Booker longlist in the form of Derby Day by D J Taylor. We've also enjoyed The Good Lord Bird by James McBride even if we did occasionally think that less would be more. You probably will enjoy The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill more.

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