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Extended Audio Sample The Quality of Mercy: A Novel, by Barry Unsworth Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (207 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Barry Unsworth Narrator: David Rintoul Publisher: Blackstone Audio Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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Barry Unsworth returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize–winning novel Sacred Hunger, this time following Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767, and to avenge his father’s death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father’s ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing as he goes and sleeping where he can. 

His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end. 

In this village, Billy’s sister, Nan, and her miner husband, James Bordon, live with their three sons, all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only seven, is enjoying his last summer aboveground. 

Meanwhile, in London, a passionate antislavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp wants compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Despite their polarized views on slavery, Ashton’s beautiful sister, Jane, encounters Erasmus Kemp and finds herself powerfully attracted to him. 

Lord Spenton, who owns coal mines in East Durham, has extravagant habits and is pressed for money. When he applies to the Kemp merchant bank for a loan, Erasmus sees a business opportunity of the kind he has long been hoping for, a way of gaining entry into Britain’s rapidly developing and highly profitable coal and steel industries. Thus he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for …

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Quotes & Awards

  • “Unsworth is one of the best historical novelists on either side of the Atlantic…His vast knowledge of eighteenth-century social and material conditions creates a rich and strange rendering of daily life that’s utterly persuasive.”

    New York Times Book Review

  • “Unsworth is one of the greatest living historical novelists, and this is what he does best: he entices us back into a past gloriously appointed with archival detail and moral complexity…[The Quality of Mercy] is another engaging demonstration of the talent that’s made Unsworth one of the very few writers to appear on the Booker shortlist three times. His sentences recall the sharp detail, moral sensitivity, and ready wit of Charles Dickens. But his sense of the lumbering, uneven gait of social progress is more sophisticated, more tempered, one might say, by history.”

    Washington Post

  • “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.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “Instantly compelling and impeccably written…Line by line, Unsworth is a vigorous and precise writer.”

    Los Angeles Times

  • “Told with bite and freshness. Unsworth, one of the most ingenious and varied of today’s British writers, makes his scenes not just vivid but microscopically vivid—we see not only their visible life but the invisible life that pulsates beneath. But what may be more remarkable is the creative subversion he works in his characters…Unsworth gives his figures glittering definition, and then leaves them open and undefined.”

    Boston Globe

  • “Unsworth’s writing is as rich and authoritative as ever, his eye for the period detail as judicious.”

    Guardian (London)

  • “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.”

    Telegraph (London)

  • “Immediately involving and immensely readable.”

    Daily Mail (London)

  • “Thought-provoking and resonant.”

    Denver Post

  • “Wryly, and with Austenesque delicacy, Unsworth presents the intricacies of love, competition, and other timeless human emotions…Having invented his own brand of historical fiction, characterized by research, imagination, and a literate narrator equally adept at penetrating a society’s values or an individual’s heart, Unsworth creates a novel that works both as period piece and indictment of industrial capitalism…It succeeds in presenting a compelling picture of a transitional moment in English history, not to mention in the development of the English character.”

    Publishers Weekly

Listener Opinions

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by David | 2/16/2014

    " Excellent follow up to Sacred Hunger. Not as good as the the 1st, some of the plot lines too contrived, but that's only relative to SH. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Derek Bridge | 2/4/2014

    " Unsworth died this year (2012). Booker Prize aside, he was insufficiently regarded. He leaves a mighty oeuvre, including the magnificent Sacred Hunger, Morality Play and Land of Marvels. The Quality of Mercy, his last novel, is in the second rank of his works, but even these are brilliant (including Pascali's Island and The Song of the Kings). It's very nicely plotted - a page-turner. But there are bigger themes too: the role of women, industrialization, and the abolition of slavery. Unsworth's choice of characters and deft plotting allow a subtle reflection on these themes. As a minor note, the racism of the abolitionists, for example, comes as a surprise but is wholly believable. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Riet | 1/30/2014

    " Dit boek is het vervolg op "Sacred hunger" waarmee Unsworth 20 jaar geleden de Booker prijs won. Dat is een erg goed boek en dit vervolg, hoewel veel korter, is minstens zo goed. Het lijkt mij moeilijk om dit beok te begrijpen, als je het eerste niet gelezen hebt. Het gaat uiteindelijk over de slavernij, de morele en juridische aspecten. In het tweeede boek wordt ook aandacht besteed aan de onmenselijke omstandigehden in de kolenmijnen van die tijd. Het klinkt allemaal wat moralistisch, maar Unsworth weet zijn hoofdpersonen heel menselijk en interessant te maken en schrijft ook nog gewoon een spannend verhaal. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by Marge | 1/17/2014

    " This sequel to Sacred Hunger continues the conflict of the slave-ship owner and the surviving members of his mutinous crew now hauled back to England to stand trial for their lives. New characters and story lines involve the abolitionist movement in Britain and the coal mining industry in small collieries in northeast England. Although perhaps not quite as stunning as the first book, it's a great read. "

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About the Author
Author Barry Unsworth

Barry Unsworth (1930–2012) was a British novelist who wrote historical fiction. He won the Booker Prize with Sacred Hunger and was shortlisted for Pascali’s Island and Morality Play. He published seventeen novels to critical acclaim.