The Quality Of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth (Random House)

Historical novels are often unashamedly escapist: the reader slips into the warm bathtub of the past, where period details provide decor but not discomfort; where lice and smallpox and primitive dentistry are all covered with froth and lather. But the best historical novels provide more: a reimagining of individual lives caught up in events larger than themselves; the externals of history analysed from the inside; an allegory that illuminates the present moment.

The Quality of Mercy, Barry Unsworth’s sequel to his 1992 novel, Sacred Hunger, provides all these. The earlier novel examined the eighteenth century slave trade and those who profited by it. If human beings are a kind of capital and the accumulation of wealth is a furthering of divine will, then a ship’s captain who orders his crew to throw sick slaves overboard in order to claim the insurance is acting according to moral as well as business principle. The ugliness of the 1980s ethos of Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Britain – that greed is good – is laid bare, and the new novel brings this contemporary critique up-to-date: it’s no coincidence that its protagonist is a banker. 

This story picks up where Sacred Hunger left off, with the surviving crew brought back to London to face trial for piracy: in rebelling against their captain’s order and freeing the slaves, they have deprived the slave-owners of their rightful property. One crew-member escapes jail, and the gallows, and makes his way to a mining village in Durham to fulfil a promise made to a dying friend. The life-long servitude of the peasant class – children begin work in the mines at the age of seven – is an obvious but unforced parallel to slavery in the book, and the gap between rich and poor is so wide that it isn’t perceived as a gap at all, but as a natural order ordained by God.

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d”: Portia’s famous speech in The Merchant of Venice reverberates ironically throughout the novel, as mercy, strained, diluted, withheld, defines the relation between the powerful and the disenfranchised. One of the many narrative subtleties here is the inflection of mercy: the banker, for example, shows unexpected clemency towards the discovered escaped prisoner, but then immediately plans how he will tell the woman he loves, and thus impress her with his charity. An ardent abolitionist is happy that the ship’s crew are hanged, as it brings attention to bear on the slavery issue.

Unsworth patiently and intelligently delineates the impure motives of the human heart, and the innately exploitative nature of unchecked capitalism – its capacity to inflict suffering. Sacred Hunger deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1992; The Quality of Mercy, in its reiteration of a timeless, unheeded truth, is a worthy successor.


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Tim Tweets