Barry Unsworth – The Quality of Mercy

A Slave Ship
A Slave Ship

At last – a real book: Barry Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy deserves the name – it’s a very good read.

The Quality of Mercy is the sequel to Sacred Hunger, a novel about Liverpool and the slave trade. This sequel is set in London and Durham, and concerns the abolitionist Frederick Ashton, the entrepreneur Erasmus Kemp, and other characters linked either to the slave trade, or to a Durham mining village.

I really enjoyed the first book, which I read several years ago, and the sequel is equally impressive. Unsworth seems well informed about the legal situation relating to slavery and abolition at this time, and about life in a Durham mining village. The first of the issues is perhaps the more compelling: he examines the conflict of interests that affected the development of laws about slavery at that time – the financial constraints on justice.

Unsworth describes both setting and character in convincing detail and is especially able to show the shades of grey – the ambiguities and conflicting feelings that lie at the heart of his characters. There are no heroes, no villains: motivation is realistically complex and uncertain. A range of characters and a series of incidents move the narrative forward: there are encounters with rogues and prostitutes; thieves and bullies cross the paths of the four main characters through whose eyes Unsworth shows us this slice of English life. There is love interest too – a sensible and very English kind of love!

If you like historical fiction you should read this book and its prequel.

Good Reads – Sacred Hunger

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