The Quality of Mercy

By Barry Unsworth

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Barry Unsworth died in Italy on June 5, of lung cancer, at age 81. That was the same day that Ray Bradbury passed away. Cynthia Crossen, writing in the Wall Street Journal, said “Mr. Bradbury invented the future; Mr. Unsworth invented the past.”

Unsworth won a major British literary award, the Booker Prize, for his novel “Sacred Hunger,” to which “The Quality of Mercy” serves as a sequel. His other books include “Pascali’s Island,” “Morality Play” and “The Ruby in Her Navel.” The New York Times called him “one of the best historical novelists on either side of the Atlantic.”

What is this book about?

Unsworth tells a tale of the late 18th century, blending a court case about a slave ship mutiny, abolitionist politics, the adventures of an itinerant Irish fiddler and the brutish lives of British coal miners in a thrilling tale. The main characters are Sullivan, the Irishman; Erasmus Kemp, son of a slave ship owner who killed himself; and Frederick Ashton, an anti-slavery crusader. Sullivan is traveling through England to find the family of a dead shipmate, who, like him, was involved in the mutiny. Kemp wants compensation for the slaves who were thrown overboard…allegedly because they were ill and water was running out, but really because the ship owner hoped to collect on the insurance for his “property.” Ashton represents the insurance company that does not want to pay. Things grow more complex when Kemp meets Ashton’s sister and a romance develops.

Why you’ll like it:

Unsworth’s brand of historical fiction was not the kind that focuses most on the outfits and customs of the era, but instead illuminates the actual history of the period. But that is not to say he did not create fascinating characters whose involvement with the great issues of their day offer a fine way for contemporary readers to understand what was going on at that time and how those events may still influence us today. Reviewers have compared Unsworth’s narrative sweep to that of Dickens, and this book, which turned out to be his last, may tempt readers to go back and enjoy all his others as well.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal:

 “…Recalling the Amistad and the song “Amazing Grace,” Unsworth’s finely crafted plot brings together a vivid cast of seamen, miners, and landowners at a moment in history when crimes of property were considered more serious than crimes against persons and a more enlightened future lay just around the corner. Highly recommended.”

“Told with bite and freshness. Unsworth, one of the most ingenious and varied of today’s British writers, makes his scenes not just vivid but microscopically vivid – we see not only their visible life but the invisible life that pulsates beneath. But what may be more remarkable is the creative subversion he works in his characters. . . . Unsworth gives his figures glittering definition, and then leaves them open and undefined,” says Richard Eder in The Boston Globe.

 “Wryly, and with Austenesque delicacy, Unsworth presents the intricacies of love, competition, and other timeless human emotions, as well as 18th-century law (if slaves thrown overboard were already dying, the insurance company was not liable for lost property, etc.). Having invented his own brand of historical fiction, characterized by research, imagination, and a literate narrator equally adept at penetrating a society’s values or an individual’s heart, Unsworth creates a novel that works both as period piece and indictment of industrial capitalism,” says Publishers Weekly.

“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. . . . His sentences recall the sharp detail, moral sensitivity and ready wit of Charles Dickens. But his sense of the lumbering, uneven gait of social progress is more sophisticated, more tempered, one might say, by history,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

“Deeply moving. . . . Unsworth brings his characters together with authority and grace. As with all of his historical novels, he conveys the sights, sounds and smells of life in another century without the slightest hint of pedantry,” says The Wall Street Journal.

When is it available?

Unsworth’s last novel is available now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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