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 Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home