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Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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By Barry Unsworth

744789.pngAt age 81, Barry Unsworth is one of England’s most beloved authors. His books include Pascali’s Island (1980), Morality Play (1995), The Ruby in Her Navel (2006), and Land of Marvels (3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2009), among others. Unsworth won the Booker Prize in 1992 for Sacred Hunger, a novel about the English slave trade during the 1700s. This is the long-awaited sequel.

The Story: In this sequel to Sacred Hunger, Erasmus Kemp, the son of the ship’s captain who had hanged himself in disgrace, hunts down the crew of the Liverpool slave ship that had absconded to Florida. He then sends the men to Newgate Prison to await trial on charges of piracy and mutiny—vengeance for his father’s financial ruin. An Irish fiddler named Sullivan manages to escape and makes his way to northern England to fulfill a promise to a dead shipmate. Back in London, Kemp wants nothing more than to see the men hanged. But Frederick Ashton, a renowned barrister and abolitionist who takes an interest in the crew’s fate, thwarts his desire for justice, thereby setting the stage for a conflict between the powerful and the powerless.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 336 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385534772

San Antonio Exp-News 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A]n honest tale of greed, justice and mercy, a cinematic period piece that engenders romance and ruthlessness in equal amounts. It is as satisfying as a table creaking under the weight of a gorgeous spread of charlottes, betties, trifles and fools, syllabubs and tansys." Steve Bennett

Washington Post 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Unsworth is one of the greatest living historical novelists, and this is what he does best: He entices us back into a past gloriously appointed with archival detail and moral complexity. … The most transporting aspect of the novel is that Unsworth obliges us to explore this conflict in the ethical and legal terms of its time, not ours." Ron Charles

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[Unsworth] is a historical novelist of a reliably old-fashioned sort: the writer who offers a plausible recreation of a bygone age and animates it with people whose motivations are consistent with the tenor of their time, while noting that the past is never neutral and that the behaviour of the men and women who wander about in it is there to be judged. … Deftly arranged, faintly determinist (one just knows the grim destiny awaiting Borden, the veteran miner), and rarely over-advertising its research (‘a dress of blue silk with hooped skirts cut to reveal the frill of petticoats and the white silk stockings and the pale blue satin slippers’ etc), The Quality of Mercy falters only in its occasional staginess." D. J. Taylor

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Fiction lives in the details, and in Sacred Hunger many of those details are indelible. … Unsworth, a master craftsman, neatly gives us a snapshot of Sullivan’s blithe character, while filling in some back story and foreshadowing the novel’s major theme, which is money." Richard Rayner

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Unsworth is one of the best historical novelists on either side of the Atlantic, and in both Sacred Hunger and The Quality of Mercy his vast knowledge of 18th-century social and material conditions creates a rich and strange rendering of daily life that’s utterly persuasive. … The real drama in The Quality of Mercy is, I suspect, the difficult struggle of its author to redeem his central character through love." John Vernon

Critical Summary

In his long-awaited sequel to Sacred Hunger, Unsworth gathers an incredible amount of historical fact, from 18th-century nautical law to the long forgotten rules of Irish handball, and presents it in clear, fascinating detail. The New York Times Book Review described the story as "a tour de force of fantastic arcana," and, indeed, perhaps Unsworth’s greatest strength is bringing the period touches to life. Despite the book’s moral complexity, the novel never comes off as preachy; instead, the larger questions about slavery, justice, and revenge appropriately fit the era. There were some quibbles: one critic didn’t buy the vengeful Kemp’s romantic side; another found that the dialogue occasionally strays into modern lingo. But Unsworth will likely be forgiven for taking two decades to finish this marvelous story, for The Quality of Mercy is one of those rare sequels that is well worth the wait.

Further Reading

744780.pngSacred Hunger | Barry Unsworth (1991): Award Star Booker Prize In this story of the greed and suffering of England’s 18th-century slave trade, merchant William Kemp pins all of his hopes on a slave ship engaging in the infamous Triangle Trade—until mutiny unites sailors and slaves, who establish a utopian society in the Florida wilderness.