The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy
Barry Unsworth
Hutchinson, 304pp, £18.99

Clive Benson, the hero of Barry Unsworth's 1988 novel Sugar and Rum, is an established writer of historical fiction struggling with his latest project, a "complex and ambitious" novel set against the backdrop of the Liverpool slave trade. "It went on so long," he complains. "I couldn't think of it just as an historical episode." By this point in the book, Benson has alighted on the historical episode that would liberate Unsworth from his own, similar difficulties. The slave ship Zong became the Liverpool Merchant, and Benson's untitled, unwriteable novel became Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize in 1992.

Now, after a gap of almost two decades characterised not by block or defeat, but by a steady stream of work, Unsworth has returned to the Liverpool Merchant with a novel that his publishers, seeking to capture old readers without alienating new ones, describe as a "standalone sequel". The Quality of Mercy succeeds in meet­ing this warped appellation, but only by means of a rigorous recap scheme:

Kemp's career had become public property . . . the obscure beginnings in Liverpool . . . the marrying into money . . . the fortune made in sugar, the partnership in his father-in-law's bank - he was head of the bank now.
He paused on this . . . recalling only now that Kemp's cousin, a man named Matthew Paris, had been the doctor on the ship, had taken part in the mutiny, in fact had played
a leading role in it, had been wounded when the people of the settlement were captured . . .

At such points, the standalone sequel looks less like an ingenious marketing category than a distinctive and identifiable literary form, though one with far more inherent vices than the conventional parasitic sequel, which may require readers to be familiar with an earlier book, down to the last subplot, but doesn't lumber its characters with the task of supplying exposition by means of fits of involuntary recall.

Happily, however, once Unsworth has informed readers that the Liverpool Merchant, owned by Erasmus Kemp's father, never made it to the Guinea Coast but came to grief in Florida, where the crew and slaves proceeded to live in harmony for 12 years, he gets on with the new book's coda-like plot, in which Erasmus seeks retribution.

If Erasmus is the villain of the piece, as Unsworth repetitiously suggests, the hero isn't quite Frederick Ashton, a Methodist lawyer devoted to the cause of abolition. Ashton's ideals are noble, but he is shown to be as merciless in his pursuit of fairness as Erasmus is ruthless
in his pursuit of wealth. It is Frederick's clear-sighted sister (and Erasmus's paramour) Jane, a reader of Voltaire, who emerges as the ethical centre of the book.

When we aren't with the novel's cast of disputatious Londoners - Erasmus, the Ashtons, Erasmus's lawyer Thomas Pike, Frederick's colleague Horace Stanton - we are with a tight-lipped Durham mining family, the Bordons. It is perhaps a contrivance too far (hardly alleviated by Unsworth describing a character struck by the "wild improbability") that the Bordons are connected to the Liverpool Merchant not only by Erasmus, who wants to take advantage of coal mining's slavery-like set-up, but also by Sullivan, a fiddler who sailed on the ship and who struggles, comically, to reach Durham in order to tell Mrs Bordon about what became of her long-lost brother Billy Blair.

The author adopts a patient voice, given to both fine-grained lyricism and clumsy ana­chronism, in which his disparate characters may ruminate, about personal gain on the one hand, and compassion and mercy on the other. There is a stretch of about 200 pages, once the various lines of narrative have been established but before they converge, during which the novel streams along very confidently.

Most of the time, Unsworth proves himself exceptional as a technician and an imaginer, and the novel's limitations look, dishearteningly, like the limitations of its form - not the standalone sequel, but the responsible, slightly po-faced Whig historical novel, in which the characters' concerns are always and only ever our concerns, and in which difficulties, however intractable they might seem, are eventually swept aside by the inexorable changes in taste, custom and habit which we call progress.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis