ABOUT THE BOOKSet in 1767, in London and in the mining village of Thrope, The Quality of Mercy centers around the intersecting lives and divergent fates of the Irish fiddler Sullivan and the ambitious young banker Erasmus Kemp.
Kemp is the son of a slave trader who committed suicide in disgrace over his debts. He has vowed to bring to justice those who seized one of his father’s slave ships 14 years before, Sullivan among them. Having tracked down the rebellious crew and brought them back from the wilds of Florida to London’s Newgate prison, Kemp wants to see them hanged for mutiny and piracy. But Sullivan escapes and sets off for the mining village of Thorpe to fulfill his own vow, made to a dead shipmate, Billy Blair, to tell Blair’s family of his fate.
The trial of the crew—as well as the case of Jeremy Evans, a runaway slave from the Gold Coast living as a free man in England—has attracted widespread scrutiny and the particular attention of a passionate abolitionist, Frederick Ashton. Ashton sees in these cases an opportunity to undermine the legal foundations for slavery in England. It is a hugely ambitious goal, and to complicate matters, his sister Jane—an ardent reformer herself—has fallen in love with their ideological adversary, Erasmus Kemp.
Running parallel to the narrative about slavery, and in some ways mirroring it, is the story of the coal miner James Bordon and his son Michael. They toil in the coal mines 12 hours a day, emerging blackened and exhausted into an existence so bleak it is hardly more bearable than slavery. James Bordon dreams of acquiring a lovely piece of land, the Dene, and starting a small vegetable farm there. His desire for this land, and the different kind of life it would afford him, further develops the complex issue of private property and how it is regarded—by Kemp, who also covets the Dene, as a coal shipping route; by Lord Spenton, who has seized the village’s common lands and turned them into an obscenely sophisticated aristocratic amusement park; and by Ashton, who argues against the fundamental absurdity and injustice of regarding human beings as property to be owned and traded like lumber or any other goods.
Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy is a deeply human story, a novel that brings vividly and often brutally to life a tumultuous period in English history. It has all the moral nuance and emotional depth of the great 19th century novels—Dickens, Zola, and George Eliot come to mind—with all the narrative complexity, political and psychological awareness of the best modern fiction. His characters are layered, fluid, capable of surprising decisions, mixed motives, and dramatic changes of heart.
In a variety of subtle ways, Unsworth holds a mirror up to our own time, inviting readers to reflect how the novel’s issues—the divisions between race and class, workers and owners, poor and rich—are still with us. But above all the novel offers a profoundly insightful exploration of the timeless struggle between the desire for vengeance and the need for mercy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barry Unsworth, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali’s Island andMorality Play, and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works includeThe Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, Losing Nelson, and Land of Marvels.
From Random House Readers Guide where you can also read an excerpt
** This is a book recommendation only and not a review by me. Go to
Random House to read more about the book.