“The Quality of Mercy” by Barry Unsworth, A ‘Stand-Alone Sequel’

“The Quality of Mercy” by Barry Unsworth (2011) – 319 pages

 The English publisher of “The Quality of Mercy” calls it a ‘stand-alone sequel’ to Barry Unsworth’s Booker prize-winning novel “Sacred Hunger’.  This is rather a funny way to refer to the novel, but it fits.  I read “Sacred Hunger” many years ago and don’t remember any of the details beyond that it was a tremendously moving novel about the English slave trade in the middle of the eighteenth century.   However my non-memory did not stop me from being entirely captivated by “The Quality of Mercy”. 

 In 1767, black slaves taken from Africa were considered property just like cotton bales or tobacco bales.  One of the legal cases that “The Quality of Mercy” deals with is a situation where the captain of the slave ship orders the crew of the ship to throw all the slaves overboard into the ocean.  Many of the slaves had gotten extremely sick while chained in the hold of the ship and were no longer of value as property.  Fourteen years later, the owner of the slave ship is suing to collect insurance money for the value of the slaves thrown overboard,   The owner claims that the slaves were thrown overboard because there was a shortage of water for the ship’s crew.  However some of the ship’s crew remember it was raining while the throwing of the slaves overboard was happening. 

 Property rights were not up against human rights in this particular case.  Instead the case came down to the property rights of the owner of the slave ship versus the property rights of the insurance company.

 One of the main characters of this novel is a lawyer whose goal is to abolish slavery.  Of course he is a figure of contempt and is derided by the businessmen of London.  The only reason the owner of the slave ship puts up with this abolitionist at all is because the ship owner has a thing for the abolitionist’s sister.  But England did ultimately abolish slavery.  By 1783, an anti-slavery movement had begun among the public, and in 1834 slavery was abolished throughout most of the British empire, a tremendous victory for human rights.  However once again today we are living in a time when, due to the influence of the Murdochs, the Koch brothers, and their paid and unpaid followers, property rights are in danger of again trumping human rights. 

 I’ve read many of the novels of Barry Unsworth and consider him one of the best novelists working today.  He has been shortlisted for the Booker prize three times, winning the one time with “Sacred Hunger”.  His other Booker shortlisted books are “Pascali’s Island” and “Morality Play”, both of which I’ve also read and do admire. 

 In his fiction, Unsworth has a spectacular way of getting you into any scene he depicts.  In  “The Quality of Mercy” he follows not only the lawyers and their upper class parties, but also the poor men who were part of the ship’s crew. One of the crew is an Irish guy who escapes from prison by pretending he is a member of the music band. You get vivid scenes with him at a local fair and in a town pub and inside a local coal mine.  “The Quality of Mercy” gives you a full perspective on what English life was like in 1767.  Unsworth makes each scene come alive so that you care deeply about the characters and what happens to them. 

I’m expecting this novel will be in the running for the Booker this year, perhaps Unsworth’s fourth shortlist.  When it comes to historical fiction,  Barry Unsworth is simply the best.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. This novel was eligible for last year’s Booker so you won’t be seeing it on this year’s list. I was puzzled that it did not attract much attention at all last year — I suspect that was because with a September publication date it had already been eliminated from the running before it appeared in the book stores(judges get ARCs — their longlist is out in late July, but the cutoff date is the end of September). Unusual, I thought, since Unsworth does have a strong Booker record, but last year’s terrible jury did leave a lot of previous winners off the shortlist.

    I like Unsworth as well (Stone Virgin would be my favorite) but confess to liking his “Italian” novels better than his “slave trade” ones. It took me a few years to get to Sacred Hunger and I suspect it may take a few to get to this one as well.

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  2. Hi KFC,
    Uh-Oh. I noticed that the Guardian review of the novel was 09/16/11, and like you said the Booker longlist is released way before this in July, so I thought it would go into the 2012 competition. How do books that aren’t even published get into the longlist? The NYT review was on 01/26/12, so it must have been released later in the US.

    My favorite Unsworth is probably “Morality Play”, but I’ve really liked many of his novels including ‘Stone Virgin’. Unsworth is one of England’s finest.

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  3. Tony: The Brits seem to produce advance copies much further in advance (like six or seven months) than we are used to in North America. That does mean there is a two-month gap between the Booker longlist and eligibility — my experience is that books scheduled for September publication get moved forward if they happen to hit the longlist.

    I suspect for someone like Unsworth and his publisher the September date is a double-edged sword. If he makes the list, they push the date forward. If he doesn’t, they know that bookstore traffic for literary novels is way up in September and October, looking at Booker finalists, and hope that his name is enough to produce a display that attracts sales even if the book misses the longlist.

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  4. Interesting, I’ll keep this useful information in mind, especially that if a book is released before the end of September it would ne elgible for the current year’s longlist.

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