This is my review of The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth.
Although it can stand alone, this excellent historical novel is a sequel to the Booker Prize Winner, “Sacred Hunger” which it is advisable to read first.
Set mainly in the London of 1767 and a Durham coastal mining village, there are four main plot strands which gradually interweave. The intense and somewhat humourless banker Erasmus Kemp is bent on bringing to trial in London the mutineers who made off with his father’s ship, thus reducing him to financial ruin and suicide. Frederick Ashton, a wealthy man who finds the cause of anti-slavery gives meaning to his life, is equally determined to get the sailors acquitted on the grounds that they were driven to violence by revulsion over the practice of throwing sick slaves overboard to maximise insurance claims. Sullivan, an Irish fiddler press-ganged onto the ill-fated ship has managed to escape from gaol before the trial, and resolves to travel north to Durham to fulfil a pledge to explain to the family of a dead friend how he came to die after the mutiny. This family are the Bordens, headed by James who can barely repress his frustration over being forced to work underground, scarcely seeing the sunlight, and who dreams of buying a sheltered plot in the dene, a beautiful wooded ravine near the village. These main characters together with Frederick’s spirited sister Jane, and James’s son Michael are all developed very fully: Unsworth’s striking observations on human nature are what make the book exceptional.
This well-paced and skilfully plotted novel with close attention to period detail provides a vivid insight into life during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, when coalmines tended to have long galleries rather than deep shafts. Men swung down the shaft on ropes, with children on the their knees. Boys as young as seven worked for hours opening trapdoors to ventilate the mines, progressing to pulling heavy wooden containers loaded with coal. Partly through some lively discussions and absorbing court scenes, the importance of another form of exploitation, black slavery linked to the sugar trade, in the growth of prosperity of England at the time is also made very clear. Then there is the acceptance of the class structure in which rich and poor were breeds apart, although there were signs of change as the merchant class began to narrow the gap with the aristocrats, who took their wealth too much for granted, and a few workers could advance through ability and good fortune. It is hard to avoid uncomfortable parallels between the casual acceptance of injustice then and now, when we assume that we are more democratic and enlightened.
The story is also realistic in being a blend of good and harsh fortune. This is demonstrated most clearly in the alternating luck of Sullivan, who comes by money one minute (perhaps dishonestly) only to be robbed the next, or is locked up in the workhouse but then transported free to the next county which is his final destination. Overall, often through chance or fate, some characters come to a sad end while others flourish. Unsworth does not deal in sentimental happy endings for all those for whom he has aroused your sympathy, but neither is he ever bleak or depressing, just moving and thought-provoking.
As a writer in his eighties, Unsworth’s wisdom shines through – the results of a lifetime of reflection. The no doubt deliberately slightly oldfashioned, flowing and literary style, fits well with the period covered, although the dialect of the Durham miners also rings true, perhaps because Unsworth was born there.
To leave the last word to the illiterate Sullivan,
“It is the power of imaginin’ that makes a man stand out, an’ it is rarer than you might think, it is similar to the power of music.”