Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Quality of Mercy

In the spirit of full disclosure I want to tell you that Barry Unsworth is one of my favorite authors. His Man Booker Prize winning novel Sacred Hunger is one of my all time revered, most  recommend, if-it-turns-out-you-don’t-appreciate-it-don’t-tell-because-I-will-think-less-of-you books.  When I found out a few months ago that Unsworth’s new novel would be a sequel to Sacred Hunger, The Quality ofMercy, my excitement was strong enough to be slightly embarrassing.

There is always a question with sequels, “Do I have to read the books in order?”  That question is also a dead giveaway. Real readers never ask that question. They HAVE TO read connected novels whether they are a series of two or twenty-two in order. It’s hard wired into the DNA.  So I answer the question for all of the less obsessive readers in the world. The answer is, “Yes.”
It is inevitable that in putting down my thoughts on The Quality of Mercy I will be spilling out some plot from Sacred Hunger as well. There will be absolutely no spoilers concerning The Quality of Mercy in this review but there will be a couple spoilers regarding Sacred Hunger.
The Quality of Mercy is set in 1767, two years after the end of Sacred Hunger. In Sacred Hunger Unsworth designed his brilliant turmoil around the deadly slave triangle of England, Africa and the New World.  The central plot in The Quality of Mercy centers on a court case resulting from the mutiny of the slave ship in Sacred Hunger.  Erasmus Kemp is looking for financial compensation for slaves lost on his Father’s ship. His legal nemesis is the abolitionist Frederick Ashton. Ashton’s passion for ending slavery extends as far as freeing the slaves and sending them back to their homeland but not as far accepting them as equals.
On other fronts mutinous members of the crew are still on the loose and need to be rounded up for prosecution and as witnesses. Kemp is looking to purchase a mine. This particular mine is desirable because it is worked by children and therefore more of a money maker than most mines. This subplot highlights the many forms of slavery that existed across races and countries. The mine workers were as hopelessly tied to mines as the African slaves were to the plantations.
Barry Unsworth is the historical novelist that all other novelists daydream about being. He writes from a position of authority. He has every social and historical detail in place, every conversation is pitch perfect, every thought or action ascribed to a character is in keeping with the historical period and with that character’s personality.  All that is amazing but what is truly astonishing is the nuanced way in which Unsworth carries all this research and plotting into what we all want the most-- captivating and rewarding storytelling.
P.S. What do you think of the cover art on the Brit edition?
I'm not in love with it but I adore it in comparision with the U.S. cover? That cover is a snooze and a half--completely expected. The Brit cover is at least unexpected and interesting.

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