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Barry Unsworth: The Quality of Mercy

This book is a follow-up to Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger and, frankly, it reads like a follow-up. Whereas the first book had a tale to tell, this book seems as though Unsworth wanted to tie up a few loose ends and then throw in a few more plot lines to pad it out. As a result, we are left with numerous plot lines, some of which link to the others, some of which don’t, some of which peter out halfway through the book leaving us wondering whether they are going to reappear and some of which go to the end but are still left incomplete (is there to be another follow-up?) Has Unsworth run out of ideas? Is he trying to cash in on the success of the earlier book? Having said all that, it is not a bad book, with some interesting bits but just does not seem to work as a whole.

At the end of the previous book, we had left Erasmus Kemp having gone to Florida and seizing the men and women from his late father’s ship, who had ended up in Florida. He is planning to bring them to trial for piracy (a hanging offence at that time) as much as anything to vindicate his father, who had hanged himself when he thought the ship had sunk and he had lost all his money and had to declare bankruptcy. However, there are various parties to the legal cases and both civil and criminal actions. Kemp wants the men he sees as responsible for his father’s death hanged for piracy. He also wants to make a claim against the insurers for loss of his property (the slaves), as we learn that quite a few of the slaves were thrown overboard, when the ship was running out of water (though the lack of water is disputed). The men arrested for piracy feel that they acted properly in killing the captain, because of his throwing the slaves overboard and did not commit piracy, as they ended up in Florida and there was no easy way to get out. Frederick Ashton is a campaigner for the abolition of slavery and, for him, throwing the slaves overboard was murder pure and simple and nothing to do with loss of property. He wants the men hanged for murder, not for piracy.

Those plots should be enough to keep a book going but Unsworth throws in several others. Firstly, one of the condemned men manages to escape from prison where he makes his way to a Durham mining village, where he plans to tell the family of Billy Blair, his best friend, and how Billy died (we only learn the details of Billy’s death towards the end). Interestingly enough the Durham mining village is quite probably in the former constituency of another Blair, Tony. I wonder if this was Unsworth’s little joke. We follow his somewhat picaresque adventures up to Durham. The mine has two other roles to play. Firstly, we are told the story of some of the miners there. Secondly, the wittily named Lord Spenton (he spends a lot) is broke and he has to borrow money from Erasmus Kemp’s bank. The terms are that Kemp is given the right to run the mine, which is owned by Lord Spenton. His dealings with the mine and with Lord Spenton are also a key plot element. There is also more about abolition, with Frederick Ashton aiding a slave, who has escaped from the West Indies, to remain free. And, finally, of course, there is love.

It is a lot to get to grips in for a three-hundred page book and Unsworth jumps about but never seems to really get to grips with any of the plots, as they meander, often aimlessly, on their course. Yes, we get resolution on the various trials but fairly predictably and compromises are reached all round but it all felt as Unsworth was going through the motions – phoning it in to use the very useful US expression. Now if only we had learned that Tony Blair descended from Billy Blair’s family.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Hutchinson