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.
On finding himself thus accidentally free, Sullivan's only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate Prison while it was still dark. Fiddle and bow slung over his shoulder, he set off northward, keeping the river at his back. In Holborn he lost an hour, wandering in a maze of courts. Then an old washerwoman, waiting outside a door in the first light of day, set him right for Gray's Inn Lane and the northern outskirts of the city.
Once sure of his way, he felt his spirits rise and he stepped out eagerly enough. Not that he had much, on the face of things, to be blithe about. These last days of March were bitterly cold and he had no coat, only the thin shirt and sleeveless waistcoat and cotton trousers issued to him on the ship returning from Florida. His shoes had been made for a man with feet of a different caliber; on him they contrived to be too loose at the heel and too tight across the toes. The weeks of prison food had weakened him. He was a fugitive, he was penniless, he...
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).
Full Review (1170 words).
What makes a writer turn to historical fiction? The task of creating a fictional world is hard enough, so why throw in the additional labor of intensive research and the mental calisthenics of imagining another time? Some of the genre's biggest names respond...
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...
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