The Quality of Mercy
Barry Unsworth’s new novel takes up the stories of two characters who originally appeared in his Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger. It begins in 1767, two years after the earlier novel ended, with ship owner Erasmus Kemp bent on revenge for the death of his father and Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, miraculously (as he sees it) escaping prison and slipping Kemp’s noose. The men’s paths are due to cross again, however, when Sullivan’s promise to his dead friend, Billy Blair, and Kemp’s business interests bring both to the Durham coalfields, home also to Unsworth, though he has lived in Italy for many years now.
This is a much shorter novel than Sacred Hunger but no less rich or powerful. Twenty years on from the earlier book, Unsworth has honed his skill as a writer so that every word and phrase of The Quality of Mercy is freighted with deep meaning and sharp observation. Though the immorality of slavery remains at the heart of the story, and, in the characters of Frederick Ashton and his sister, Jane, Unsworth unsparingly exposes the cynicism underlying the altruism of the abolitionists, it is slavery closer to home which is the focus here; the slavery of the coal miners: Percy Bordon, down the pit at the age of 7, and his older brothers, Michael and David, who never see daylight for six months of the year.
The Quality of Mercy is a wonderful novel from a writer at the height of his powers, a gripping courtroom drama, a subtle love story, a knockabout comedy and a social commentary, all exquisitely packed into less than three hundred pages. A magnificent tour de force.