Those of you who remember Barry Unsworth‘s Sacred Hunger rightfully deserve an award of your own. First published in 1992, it shared the prestigious Booker Prize (now renamed the Man Booker) with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient – but after the movie of Ondaatje’s book shot to Oscar success, Unsworth’s novel largely fell by the wayside. And that’ s a shame, because within Sacred Hunger‘s pages is a fascinating look at the slave trade, told in the style of a nineteenth century novel. It’s simultaneously a precise and realistic piece of historical fiction and a literary tour-de-force.
Whether you remember Sacred Hunger or not, The Quality of Mercy should bring Unsworth further popular acclaim. Set in 1767, and following on from the events depicted in Sacred Hunger, it nonetheless takes a different tack to the 1992 Booker winner. For starters, all the action is situated in England, and slavery isn’t Unsworth’s only target here. He also takes the class divide in his sights, drawing his themes out into greater questions of freedom, privilege, and the redemptive quality of mercy (there’s a clue in the title, just in case you miss it).
A number of narrative threads entwine through The Quality of Mercy, and it’s indicative of Unsworth’s skill as a novelist that they’re given varying weight at different points in the story. The novel opens with the escape of Irish fiddler Sullivan from prison, and his thread follows his journey to County Durham, where he intends to inform the family of shipmate Billy Blair of his friend’s death. Also returning from the previous novel is Erasmus Kemp, the villain of Sacred Hunger, a prosperous slave trader who will stop at nothing to get what he wants; in this instance, what he wants is reparation for the theft of his ship and the freeing of his slaves. Kemp also has plans for a coal mine in County Durham, in what just happens to be the village towards which Sullivan is headed… Then there’s Frederick Ashton, a campaigner for the abolition of slavery whose sister Jane becomes the subject of Kemp’s unexpected affections.
Much of the pleasure of historical fiction lies in the details, and Unsworth proves yet again that he’s a master at delivering these small parcels of fact. For the casual reader of historical novels The Quality of Mercy will come as a rare treat, a work of fiction where the historical elements are perfectly integrated into the narrative – but Unsworth’s intention is far greater than a simulacrum of reality.
He also delves into the ethical and philosophical questions raised by his story with apparent glee. At times the narrative gets mired in the details of the court case (a rather blunt device for frank discussion of the ethics of slavery), but the characters seem so alive that even these boggier passages move swiftly along. It’s in keeping with Unsworth’s theme that Ashton is never quite as pure in his intentions as he would have us believe, and Kemp is never quite as villainous either. Even novelists sometimes have to show a little mercy.
If you haven’t read Sacred Hunger then you may want to hunt down a copy before embarking on The Quality of Mercy, but it isn’t necessary to enjoy the twists and turns of a novel that stands on its own merits. It’s been a long time in coming – but, as the Bard would have it, The Quality of Mercy is most definitely not strained.
The Quality of Mercy is available now from all good bookstores, and from the Random House website, priced $26.95.