Barry Unsworth has prepared some interesting specimens of eighteenth-century humanity in The Quality of Mercy. He takes characters from wildly different social strata - a slave-dealing capitalist, an abolitionist lawyer, a light-starved coal miner, a fiddler escaped from prison - and puts them under a microscope to expose the subtle workings of their minds and morals. Under such close scrutiny, nothing is black-and-white.
Erasmus Kemp, who has inherited the family slave and sugar business, is now scheming over the money to be made in coal. Kemp has been involved in gruesome dealings, many of which make up the action in Unsworth's 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel, Sacred Hunger. There is a nagging sense in The Quality of Mercy that all the strongest action and blackest deeds have taken place in the past - instead of adventure on the high seas, we have arguments in courts of law. ...
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