The Quality of Mercy

Barry Unsworth

The Quality of Mercy

The Quality of Mercy opens in the spring of 1767, in the immediate aftermath of the events in Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. It follows the fortunes of two central characters from that book: Sullivan, an Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, the son of a disgraced Liverpool slave-ship owner who hanged himself. 3.7 out of 5 based on 17 reviews
The Quality of Mercy


Classification Fiction
Genre General Fiction
Format Hardcover
Pages 304
RRP £18.99
Date of Publication September 2011
ISBN 978-0091937126
Publisher Hutchinson

The Quality of Mercy opens in the spring of 1767, in the immediate aftermath of the events in Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. It follows the fortunes of two central characters from that book: Sullivan, an Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, the son of a disgraced Liverpool slave-ship owner who hanged himself.


The Scotsman

Allan Massie

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.


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The Guardian

Sarah Crown

This is an intriguing sort of sequel: it soon becomes clear that Unsworth's ambitions for it extend beyond the furthering of his surviving characters' stories. Rather than leaving the events of the earlier novel in its wake, The Quality of Mercy lingers over them obsessively ... There's plenty in the vigorous narrative ... for the reader to invest in, but what leaves the deepest impression is Unsworth's neat skewering of the period's socioeconomics.


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The Sunday Times

Christopher Potter

With so much happening on the page that is dramatic and plot-based — the many different narrative threads eventually tie together in an entirely satisfying fashion — it could be easy to overlook the instances of quiet psychological transformation that give this novel its particular power.


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The Daily Express

Caroline Jowett

In other hands the book’s oh so neat plotting – at times the story is almost operatically symmetrical – might feel calculated. Unsworth however is as heartfelt as he is encouraging and his novel only seems more passionate for its formal precision.


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The Daily Mail

John Harding

Like all of Unsworth’s work, this novel is immediately involving and immensely readable, and maybe even better than the earlier book.


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The Daily Telegraph

Toby Clements

The Quality of Mercy is a sequel to Sacred Hunger, though you need not necessarily have read the former to make sense of the latter since Unsworth’s exposition is as deft as it is undetectable. Once again he plaits his separate stories together with painstaking skill.


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The Los Angeles Times

Richard Rayner

What's on offer here is instantly compelling and impeccably written, and likely to make more sense if the reader has some familiarity with the earlier novel. Unsworth does extend his ambitions, however: In taking the book's action off the ship and back to the teeming streets and highways of 18th century England, he offers a broader social picture of capitalism's realities.


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The Washington Post

Ron Charles

The legal issues are sometimes arcane, and the risk of falling into the cadence of a lecture is high, but Unsworth never lets that happen. Instead, “The Quality of Mercy” fleshes out these contractual and ethical conflicts in precise, searching scenes. And even better, the book avoids easy caricatures that would have us feeling superior to those narrow-minded figures of the past whom we, surely, would not have been.


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The Daily Telegraph

Holly Kyte

Yet for a novel so concerned with empathy, it keeps a cool head, resisting the sermonising, histrionics and sentimentalism that its emotive subject invites. Unsworth’s is a vigorous, clear-eyed approach to history, electrified by his complete feel for the period, his neat bathetic wit and, like Sullivan himself, his natural gift for storytelling.


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The Times

Kate Saunders

This is a complex, absorbing, richly detailed novel and the characters are drawn with extraordinary subtlety. Terrific.


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The New York Times

John Vernon

Redeeming someone like Kemp, whose power lies in his blind obstinance, is like trying to bring the dead to life. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether Unsworth succeeds or if he merely animates the man’s limbs with a few galvanic shocks. In “The Quality of Mercy,” Unsworth appears determined to avoid the trap of Victorian mawkishness Elizabeth Gaskell fell into in her 1855 novel, “North and South,” whose story bears a resemblance to his ... Still, this reader wishes Unsworth had left him alone.


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The Evening Standard

Michael Prodger

This is what might be called a Whig historical novel as the mercy of his title affects, to varying degrees, each of his protagonists. The result is a slight slippage in tension as the big denouement is replaced by smaller, subtler ones but not in interest because, as one character remarks: "The ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others is a great deal rarer than might be thought". Unsworth, though, has it in spades.


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The Financial Times

Sam Leith

Unsworth’s 18th-century setting (fastidiously researched, though heavily worn) finds a correspondingly 18th-century feel in the fabric of his story: it is deeply sentimental, at times robustly comic, hinges on some reality-stretching coincidences and wraps its loose ends with an unashamedly didactic neatness. This is a silkily written potboiler, wonderfully well-realised, entirely engrossing and ever so slightly hokey.


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The Independent on Sunday

DJ Taylor

... a historical novelist of a reliably old-fashioned sort: the writer who offers a plausible recreation of a bygone age and animates it with people whose motivations are consistent with the tenor of their time, while noting that the past is never neutral and that the behaviour of the men and women who wander about in it is there to be judged ... the fact that his characters never turn into moral ciphers is one of his greatest strengths.


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The New Statesman

Leo Robson

Most of the time, Unsworth proves himself exceptional as a technician and an imaginer, and the novel's limitations look, dishearteningly, like the limitations of its form - not the standalone sequel, but the responsible, slightly po-faced Whig historical novel, in which the characters' concerns are always and only ever our concerns, and in which difficulties, however intractable they might seem, are eventually swept aside by the inexorable changes in taste, custom and habit which we call progress.


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The Literary Review

Clare Clark

An unashamedly old-fashioned tale that never fails to engage … Sacred Hunger was a fierce, passionate, frequently harrowing book, powered by a raw vitality. Set mostly in the law offices and drawing rooms of the gentry, The Quality of Mercy is an altogether politer and more cerebral enterprise.


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The Spectator

Anthony Cummins

Crisp dialogue and pastiche-free diction were among Sacred Hunger’s virtues. Vocabulary continues to receive care here, but, for the most part, Unsworth’s 17th book since 1966 feels sketchy. Some of its 39 short chapters are bulletin-brisk, and one or two are bulked out with redundant chat


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