It is the spring of 1767 and Erasmus Kemp has brought back fugitive settlers from America, among them Sullivan, an Irish fiddler. As Sullivan sits in jail, charged with playing a role in the loss of Kemp's father's ship, he makes a solemn vow to gain his freedom and personally deliver the news of a shipmate's passing to his family.
Eventually Sullivan's prayers are heard and he manages to escape from jail. But little does he know he is on a direct course to encounter his nemesis once more, as the two men become embroiled in an epic struggle that pits Kemp's insatiable desire for wealth against Sullivan's passionate advocacy for the poor and the powerless. The Quality of Mercy is rich and rewarding historical fiction of the highest order from the master, Barry Unsworth.
Another thing Unsworth does brilliantly is create a historical backdrop that is utterly believable without being intrusive. Small descriptive vignettes in the background drive home the fact that this is a vastly different world from our own. There are the expected wigs and carriages and tasteful interiors, and then there are the "usual array of traitors' heads" on spikes, and the "spyglasses for rent to any passersby who might be taken with a fancy for a closer look at the features of the decapitated felons." (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).
The Wall Street Journal
Deeply moving... Unsworth brings his characters together with authority and grace. As with all of his historical novels, he conveys the sights, sounds and smells of life in another century without the slightest hint of pedantry.
A sturdy historical novel with fewer pages than Sacred Hunger but no less nuance.
The Telegraph (UK)
Unsworth's is a vigorous, clear-eyed approach to history, electrified by his complete feel for the period, his neat bathetic wit and his natural gift for storytelling.
The Scotsman (UK) The Quality of Mercy is the work of one who is both artist and craftsman. There is not a page without interest, not a sentence that rings false. It is gripping and moving, a novel about justice which is worthy of that theme. In short, it is a tremendous achievement, as good as anything this great novelist has written.
The Guardian (UK)
Unsworth's writing is as rich and authoritative as ever, his eye for the period detail as judicious.
The Financial Times (UK)
The Daily Mail (UK)
Immediately involving and immensely readable.
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Before his death in June 2012, Barry Unsworth's literary imagination covered a broad territory in both time and space, from fourteenth-century England (Morality Play), to the end of the Ottoman Empire (Pascali's Island), to ancient Greece (The Songs of the Kings) and eighteenth-century England (The Quality of Mercy). Unsworth credited living in historically rich places like Greece and Turkey (and now Italy) with awakening his "wonder at the constant sense of continuity and connection" between past and present. In a 2008 interview with Littoral, he explains:
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