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'The Quality of Mercy' review: Sequel to 'Sacred Hunger'

Barry Unsworth follows the crew of a slave ship as it returns to 18th century England.

February 05, 2012|By Richard Rayner, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Quality of Mercy

A Novel

Barry Unsworth

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 336 pp., $26.95

"Sacred Hunger," which won a half-share in the 1992 Man Booker Prize for Barry Unsworth (the co-winner was Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient"), tracks the adventures of the crew of the slave ship the Liverpool Merchant, that mutinies and establishes an egalitarian community in the Florida swamps. The novel is a parable about the capitalist impulse, about man's lust for "profit, which justifies everything, sanctifies any purposes."

"Sacred Hunger" has a message, but that message is delivered through a richly imagined universe. Fiction lives in the details, and in "Sacred Hunger" many of those details are indelible.

Unsworth's new novel, "The Quality of Mercy," takes up where "Sacred Hunger" left off. His English publishers describe the book as a "standalone sequel," a quirky marketing tag wisely dropped from the U.S. edition. But we get the drift. What's on offer here is instantly compelling and impeccably written, and likely to make more sense if the reader has some familiarity with the earlier novel. Unsworth does extend his ambitions, however: In taking the book's action off the ship and back to the teeming streets and highways of 18th century England, he offers a broader social picture of capitalism's realities.

The year is 1767, and the few surviving mutineers have been hauled back to London. They languish in Newgate prison, awaiting trial. Erasmus Kemp, the obsessed and vengeful son of the slave ship's owner, holds these men responsible for his father's ruin, humiliation and suicide. He wants to see them hang. But one of the prisoners, Sullivan, an Irish fiddle player, contrives to slip out of Newgate and embarks on an odyssey north, heading for a small mining community in County Durham to fulfill a promise he made to a dead shipmate named Billy Blair.

"The Quality of Mercy" intertwines the strands of Sullivan's travels, various court cases in London and life in the northern mining town to which Sullivan is headed. In many ways Sullivan, who bowls through a series of adventures, supplies the novel's moral compass. He steals from necessity, having no natural propensity to theft, and has a comically well-adjusted sense of justice so that, having robbed a man, he feels he has to offer explanation.

"I had a shipmate," he says. "A Durham man, name of Billy Blair. Him an' me were close. We were pressed aboard ship together in Liverpool. She was a slaver, bound for the Guinea Coast. We took the negroes on but we niver got to Jamaica with them, we came to grief on the coast of Florida. We had reasons for stayin' where we were, but I will not occupy your time with them, as being irrelevant to the point at issue. Billy sometimes talked about the place where he was born an' about his family. He ran away to sea when he was a lad of fourteen, to get away from minin' the coal."

Thus 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. Billy Blair fled one cruel economic reality, the pit, only to find himself press-ganged into another, the slave ship. Erasmus Kemp is a banker, a powerful man, yet trapped in a Dickensian way among his coins, ledgers, account books. The insurance case that propels several chapters centers upon the value, in hard cash, of slaves thrown overboard. Frederick Ashton, the abolitionist who opposes Kemp, perceives the wrong in slaves being treated as property yet pays little attention to the plight of the urban poor who surround him.

Historical novels inevitably reflect the era in which they're written as much as those in which they're set. Unsworth is no postmodern trickster, and while "The Quality of Mercy" employs none of the narrative feints and ploys that energize, say, John Fowles' "The French Lieutenant's Woman," the novel nonetheless speaks to the class fissures and economic turmoil of our time. It depicts a society on the cusp of change, at the beginning of an industrial revolution.

"It is the power of imagining that makes a man stand out," says the fiddle player Sullivan, and the emotional heart of the novel resides in the power of Unsworth's characters to dream of freedom from slavery, "freedom from drudgery and want," freedom from history.

During the course of "The Quality of Mercy," Erasmus Kemp falls in love with Jane Ashton, his antagonist's sister, and resolves to buy land in the same small County Durham town that is Sullivan's destination, enabling Unsworth to draw together the strands of his plot.

The impact of the characters, the speed of the story and the quality of the prose ensure that most readers will forgive these coincidences. Line by line, Unsworth is a vigorous and precise writer. Here he describes Kemp, en route to Handel at the opera: "Some hours later, dressed with extreme care in a suit of dark green velvet, close-fitting at the waist as fashion dictated but severe of cut otherwise, Erasmus Kemp issued from his house and engaged a sedan to take him to Westminster Bridge, where he found boats plying for hire all along the Embankment."

"Issued from his house and engaged a sedan" — that's lovely historical writing, not overdressed with crinolines and buckled shoes, but putting us there.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

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