The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy
Barry Unsworth
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Random House
Thu, 01/09/2011

This self-contained title by a previous Booker winner looks at a host of characters and the fallout 14 years on of a murderously failed shipment of slaves to Jamaica. Survivors, abolitionist lawyers and descendants of prime characters first time around are all introduced in an amenable narrative style, and share the focus of the many brief chapters in turn.

While one encounter between them is obvious a mile off, there is more than enough interest elsewhere, with Unsworth’s compassion and warmth coming across. There is also a lot of thinly disguised exposition and reflection from 2011’s point of view (some pages could even respond to the summer’s riots) but this is easily ignored with the humanity of the story, the authenticity of the times’ recreation, and the psychological accuracy.

There is focus on hardship almost equal to that of the slaves in pre-Industrial Revolution coal-mining, detail from the game of squash-without-racquets that was handball up, and as befitting a period novel, an unlikely romance. Some strands didn’t convince, but there is no real complaint when faced with such a rich read. It might seem at times to circle round a dry, worthy subject but it does so with great levels of readability.

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