December 27, 2011

Seeking justice on British soil

By Barry Unsworth
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The Quality of Mercy is Unsworth’s long-awaited sequel to his 1992 Booker prizewinner Sacred Hunger, a game-changer of a historical novel which concluded with several major character arcs left unresolved. Picking up just months after the earlier book left off, The Quality of Mercy offers a cast of British miners, bankers, abolitionists and landowners struggling to define their ideas of property, wealth and personal responsibility in a changing world.

Sacred Hunger followed the passage of the Liverpool Merchant, an 18th-century slave ship that disappeared off the coast of Florida, and the obsessive attempts of Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship’s owner and himself a well-established banker, to determine what happened to slaves and crew. When Kemp travels to Florida and discovers that the survivors had formed a makeshift community—black and white together—he sends the slaves to the Carolinas be sold, bringing the remainder of the crew back to England to be charged with mutiny and destruction of property.

The Quality of Mercy opens after Kemp’s return to England, where he is pursuing the trial with a singularity of purpose, but no more peace of mind than he had before his trip. One of the jailed crew members, Sullivan, slips out of jail and heads north for a mining village in County Durham. He has pledged to find the family of his old shipmate Billy Blair, who died in the course of Kemp’s attack, and to inform Blair’s sister of the death of her brother. Kemp wants to find Sullivan but is distracted by a burgeoning relationship with Jane Ashton, the sister of a prominent abolitionist, whose philosophy forces to re-examine his own desire for revenge. Another chance relationship interests him in mining opportunities in County Durham and he also begins to make his way north.

That Kemp and Sullivan will eventually meet and confront one another is no surprise. It is in the telling and not the plotting that the book is strongest. The dramas in and around the mining village and the trials in London offer Unsworth a chance to explore once more the complicated relationship between those who work the land and those who own it. Though slavery plays a smaller part than in Sacred Hunger, the moral limits of ownership are never far from Unsworth’s mind.

The Quality of Mercy is historical fiction at its best. The ideas are thoughtful, but the writing flows easily and the research, which must have been plentiful, is integrated seamlessly into the storytelling. Though you don’t necessarily need to be familiar with Sacred Hunger to enjoy The Quality of Mercy, reading both novels would be the perfect way to kick off a new year of reading.

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The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy

By Barry Unsworth
ISBN 9780385534772

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