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