The Quality of Mercy
Barry Unsworth
Nan A. Talese/


Reading Barry Unsworth is kind of like listening to a totally awesome wedding band. But it’s not because I got this book at an open bar. It’s because he’s telling old stories that have been restructured and rephrased a million times, and he’s doing it in really effective, engaging ways that still make sense. And just as you might say it’s rare these days to hear a cover of “Build Me Up Buttercup” that’s actually cool and not cheesy, it’s rare to find a contemporary novel that succeeds in quite the way that The Quality of Mercy does.

Set in England in 1767, a dual plotline follows several very different individuals, all of whom are affected by the natural tension that exists between the weakest members of society and those who — whether financially or authoritatively — dominate them. We follow Sullivan, a poor Irishman who’s just escaped from jail and charges of piracy, and is on his way to the small coal-mining town of Durham to tell a dead shipmate’s family how he met his end. As he journeys, we meet Erasmus Kemp, a wealthy businessman whose father owned the slave ship Sullivan and his fellow mutineers drove off course. Kemp, in steadfast devotion to his father’s legacy, seeks to bring the sailors to what he believes to be justice. But he’s countered at every turn by Frederick Ashton, an ardent abolitionist hell-bent on convincing his fellow countrymen that the Africans on that ship, or anywhere, should no longer be treated as property. As the legal battles rage, we also find an unlikely romance develop between Ashton’s sister and Kemp, to the initial chagrin of her brother.

The most powerful scenes, though, are somewhat removed from that primary action, focusing on daily life in the town and mines of Durham. Unsworth places the labor of soot-faced workers under a microscope, and expertly draws out the story of Percy Bordon, a seven-year-old who has touchingly conflicted feelings about the fact that he must begin mining coal the following year. The subplot doesn’t just fit really well into the story as a whole; it forces the reader to embrace the class conflicts that are central to the novel.

Unsworth has to be one of the best authors of period dramas out there right now. His sheer knowledge of mid-18th century setting, characterization and overall atmosphere are unbeatable, and the embellishments of his prose are a perfect match. What matters in the end is that, as a result, his themes — of the plight of the dispossessed, and the rationalizations of the powerful — still resonate. Bringing to life the miners of Durham puts forth as good a commentary our own generation’s working class struggles as can be found in contemporary fiction, and it’s no less accessible. As Kemp is forced to admit toward the novel’s close, The Quality of Mercy leaves it mark because of the profound ways in which “a person of no substance and standing, a fugitive from the gallows, should have the last word.”


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