Summary and book reviews of The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

The Quality of Mercy

A Novel

By Barry Unsworth

The Quality of Mercy
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2012,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2012,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

1

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...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Barry Unsworth takes his title from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice - the scene in which Portia tells the vengeful moneylender Shylock: "The quality of mercy is not strained / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. / It is twice blessed: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." Why would Unsworth reference Shakespeare's play in his title? At what key moments in the novel does mercy prevail over vengeance? Why, for example, does Kemp decide not to apprehend Sullivan?


  2. What is the effect of telling the story through multiple points-of-view—of getting inside the minds of all the main characters rather than having one perspective dominate?


  3. The novel opens with Sullivan dragging a ...
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Reviews

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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).

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Media Reviews
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)

Entirely engrossing.

The Daily Mail (UK)

Immediately involving and immensely readable.

Kirkus Reviews

A sturdy historical novel with fewer pages than Sacred Hunger but no less nuance.

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.

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Why Write Historical Fiction?

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...

Barry Unsworth 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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