Hutchinson £18.99

The Quality of Mercy, By Barry Unsworth

The Sacred Hunger finally has a sequel, and in it the slave ship's crew are back in 18th-century Blighty awaiting trial for their crimes

What kind of historical novelist is Barry Unsworth?

Despite a practised ear for the idioms of the mid-18th-century drawing-room, and a weather eye for the contents of the mid-18th-century wardrobe, he is not a pasticheur. And although the consciousness that lies at the heart of this series of despatches from a 1760s courtroom is ultimately a contemporary one, neither is he the kind of postmodern trifler whose real aim is to remind his characters of the misfortune of having to inhabit a world before Freud. In fact, he is 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.

Unsworth's 16th novel, a rather tardy sequel to 1992's Sacred Hunger, has all these qualities in spades. Its Booker-winning predecessor tracked (at considerable length) the adventures of a slave ship's ground-down crew who mutinied off the American coast, made their way ashore into the Florida swamps and together with the surviving cargo established an egalitarian settlement built on the principle of inter-racial harmony. Now, 14 years later, after their apprehension by Erasmus Kemp, the son of the vessel's disgraced owner, and his posse of redcoats, the boys are back in Blighty awaiting trial, and a verdict Kemp hopes will appease a sensibility less interested in vindictive score-settling and more in a concept of justice that is almost abstract, the drawing of a line in "some cosmic ledger".

While Kemp's obsession is its driving force, the novel has several contending points of focus. Sullivan, the crew's Irish fiddler, has slipped out of Bridewell to make his way to the Tyneside colliery village inhabited by the family of his dead shipmate, Billy Blair. By chance, Kemp's gaze is travelling in the same direction, as he seeks to better exploit the local magnate Lord Stanton's coal stocks. Meanwhile, the celebrated abolitionist Frederick Ashton is immersing himself in the three court cases which have a bearing on the plot: a compensation suit involving the "jettisoning of cargo" (that is, the slaves thrown over the side prior to the mutiny); the trial of the mutineers; and a test case primed to establish the freedom of former slaves now domiciled in England.

Naturally enough, the procedural cards are stacked in favour of liberty and sweet reason, and yet beneath the surface lurk a fair amount of moral complexity and blurred lines. Kemp is in love with Ashton's sister. Ashton, cross-questioning the mutineers in their prison yard and hoping to enrol them on freedom's side in the matter of the drowned slaves, gets a dusty answer.

Kemp and Lord Stanton are neatly juxtaposed: the one a no-nonsense upwardly mobile bourgeois who lives by plan and design; the other a genteel dilettante whose "easy paternalism" provokes Kemp's hostility, "not because he felt any great sympathy for the mining folk, but because it brought his own early struggles back to mind. He had had to scrabble for money, fight for his place in the world."

Deftly arranged, faintly determinist (one just knows the grim destiny awaiting Borden, the veteran miner), and rarely over-advertising its research ("a dress of blue silk with hooped skirts cut to reveal the frill of petticoats and the white silk stockings and the pale blue satin slippers" etc), The Quality of Mercy falters only in its occasional staginess. Like Sacred Hunger, whose mutineers sometimes seemed to be discussing the evils of monetarism before the word was invented, it has a trick of couching its moral concerns in suspiciously modern-sounding language. When Miss Ashton, for example, remarks of her work among the fallen women that they should be granted "power over themselves", "self-respect" and "control over their own lives" she loses her historical tethering. The same is true of Mr Pike, Erasmus's lawyer, explaining that the best way to stop a revolution is to bamboozle the lower-middle-classes into aligning themselves with men of property.

Eventually, most of the moral and personal antagonisms on display lose their edge. Inches are given and received. Lord Stanton frustrates Kemp's commercial schemes through an act of generosity to one of his tenants. Kemp has the opportunity to send Sullivan to the gallows, but stays his hand. We know, of course – or think we know – what Unsworth wants us to feel about the world he has created, and the issues that run beneath it. At the same time, the fact that his characters never turn into moral ciphers is one of his greatest strengths.

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game