The Quality of Mercy opens in the spring of 1767, two years after the events of Barry Unsworth's Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger. It follows the fortunes of two central characters from that book: Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, the son of a Liverpool slave-ship owner who hanged himself. To avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy.
But Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing as he goes and sleeping where he can. His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived. And he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
Although it is over 20 years ago that Barry Unsworth wrote Sacred Hunger this is the belated sequel to it. To get full pleasure from this book you really need to have read/listened to Sacred Hunger. However this book develops into a great story in its own right. New characters are introduced and new story lines are developed. The narration by David Rintoul is superb. The only slightly disappointing aspect is the rather abrupt ending. Perhaps Barry U is just setting us up for a third in the series ...!!!! I hope so.
At last both of Barry Unsworth's best books, Sacred Hunger and The Quality of Mercy are availabe on audible books. The sequel, The Quality of Mercy, follows the pursuit, capture and trial of the remaining crew and slaves many years after the slave ship foundered off the American coast on its way from Africa. Not as well crafted as Sacred Hunger, this book nonetheless is testament to Unsworth's long research into the 18th Century triangular trade between Liverpool, Africa and America. As will be discovered by listening to the book, the title was carefully chosen.
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Written many years after “Sacred Hunger” we learn of the subsequent lives of some of the surviving characters on their return to the UK.
Michael Sullivan, fiddler, seaman, unreliable raconteur and faithful friend undertakes an arduous journey in fulfilment of a oath to a dead companion, which leads him to the unlovely coalfields of Co Durham.
Erasmus Kemp, the vengeful merchant’s son, continues his vendetta against the surviving crew of the “Liverpool Merchant”, and opposes legal actions which seek to abolish slavery in England (Scots law is different), and which set out to show that slavery has never existed there, which means that any slaves brought into the country are freemen. The tide is turning against the slave trade and slavery in the colonies, vigorously supported by vested interests, as you can well believe.
Sullivan’s odyssey, Kemp’s new business interests in mining, and his attraction to a young woman whose brother is pursuing legal challenges to slavery, result in a novel of broad scope and well described social contrasts.
David Rintoul never fails for me as a narrator, he speaks clearly, differentiates characters, doesn’t mess up foreign words, and as far as I can tell, his regional accents are respectably portrayed. (I cannot swear to this, as a Scot living in Kent, I am unable, unlike GBS’s Professor Higgins, identify any Englishman’s origins to within a few streets!)