The Quality Of Mercy

by Barry Unsworth

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group | August 7, 2012 | Trade Paperback

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It is the spring of 1767, and the vengeful Erasmus Kemp has had the mutinous sailors of his father's ship brought back to London to stand trial on piracy charges. Much to Kemp's dismay, the Irish fiddler Sullivan has escaped, and retrieving him proves too much in the midst of overseeing the dramatic legal case and a new business venture in the northern coal and steel industries of Thorpe. But the two men's paths are about to collide once again, for Sullivan is also on his way to Thorpe to fulfill the dying wish of his shipmate.

With historical sweep and deep pathos, Unsworth explores the struggles of the downtrodden against the rich and the powerful.

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 336 pages, 3.11 × 2.01 × 0.28 in

Published: August 7, 2012

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0307948048

ISBN - 13: 9780307948045

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– More About This Product –

The Quality Of Mercy

by Barry Unsworth

Format: Trade Paperback

Dimensions: 336 pages, 3.11 × 2.01 × 0.28 in

Published: August 7, 2012

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Language: English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10: 0307948048

ISBN - 13: 9780307948045

Read from the Book

1 On finding himself thus accidentally free, Sullivan’s only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate Prison while it was still dark. Fiddle and bow slung over his shoulder, he set off northward, keeping the river at his back. In Holborn he lost an hour, wandering in a maze of courts. Then an old washerwoman, waiting outside a door in the first light of day, set him right for Gray’s Inn Lane and the northern outskirts of the city. Once sure of his way, he felt his spirits rise and he stepped out eagerly enough. Not that he had much, on the face of things, to be blithe about. These last days of March were bitterly cold and he had no coat, only the thin shirt and sleeveless waistcoat and cotton trousers issued to him on the ship returning from Florida. His shoes had been made for a man with feet of a different caliber; on him they contrived to be too loose at the heel and too tight across the toes. The weeks of prison food had weakened him. He was a fugitive, he was penniless, he was assailed by periodic shudders in this rawness of the early morning. All the same, Sullivan counted his blessings as he walked along. He had his health still; there was nothing amiss with him that a bite to eat wouldn’t put right. He would find shelter in Durham if he could get there. And there was a grace on him, he had been singled out. It was not given to many just to stroll out of prison like that. Strolling through the gates . . . His teeth ch
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From the Publisher

It is the spring of 1767, and the vengeful Erasmus Kemp has had the mutinous sailors of his father's ship brought back to London to stand trial on piracy charges. Much to Kemp's dismay, the Irish fiddler Sullivan has escaped, and retrieving him proves too much in the midst of overseeing the dramatic legal case and a new business venture in the northern coal and steel industries of Thorpe. But the two men's paths are about to collide once again, for Sullivan is also on his way to Thorpe to fulfill the dying wish of his shipmate.

With historical sweep and deep pathos, Unsworth explores the struggles of the downtrodden against the rich and the powerful.

About the Author

BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali''s Island and Morality Play and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works include The Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, Losing Nelson, and Land of Marvels.

Editorial Reviews

“Superb. . . . Unsworth is one of the best historical novelists on either side of the Atlantic.” — The New York Times Book Review     “Deeply moving. . . . Unsworth is equally fluent writing about the lives of bankers and coal miners, judges and slaves, and he brings his characters together with authority and grace.” — The Wall Street Journal     “Another engaging demonstration of the talent that’s made Unsworth one of the very few writers to appear on the Booker shortlist three times.” — The Washington Post   “Reading Barry Unsworth, one immediately feels secure in the hands of an experienced pro, a master scribe that knows his way through a story like a seasoned navigator sailing treacherous but familiar seas.” — San Antonio Express-News     “Unsworth has an Austen-esque flair and an uncanny ability to bring the past to life.” —Geraldine Brooks, author of March   “Transcends its time. . . . Thought-provoking and resonant.” — The Denver Post   “ 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.” — The Scotsman   “In
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Bookclub Guide

BARRY UNSWORTH, who won the Booker Prize for Sacred Hunger, was a Booker finalist for Pascali''s Island and Morality Play and was long-listed for the Booker Prize for The Ruby in Her Navel. His other works include The Songs of the Kings, After Hannibal, Losing Nelson, and Land of Marvels.

1. Barry Unsworth takes his title from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice-the scene in which Portia tells the vengeful moneylender Shylock: "The quality of mercy is not strained / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. / It is twice blessed: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." Why would Unsworth reference Shakespeare's play in his title? At what key moments in the novel does mercy prevail over vengeance? Why, for example, does Kemp decide not to apprehend Sullivan?

2. What is the effect of telling the story through multiple points-of-view-of getting inside the minds of all the main characters rather than having one perspective dominate?

3. The novel opens with Sullivan dragging a drunken man out of harm's way, then robbing him of most of his money. He begins to walk away, but decides that he should rob the man of all his money, his boots and his coat, so that the lucky fellow will not "go through life feelin' convicted of ingratitude" for Sullivan's good deed. In what ways does this very humorous scene set up some of the novel's major themes? What other characters contrive to mask their own self-interest as generosity?

4. What makes Sullivan such an engaging character? How does he interpret his sudden changes in fortune, both good and bad? Why is he so trusting?

5. What role do vows play in the novel? What motivates both Sullivan and Kemp to keep their vows? Is Jane right in saying that Kemp fulfilled his vow to his father simply by sharing it with her? How does sharing that vow affect him?

6. Sullivan says of James Bordon that he was the only one, of all those who heard the story of Billy Blair, that "had the power of sharin'. The sister was grateful an' the others took an interest, but he was other only one could touch it in his mind.... And the reason for that, the reason for that sharin', lies in the power of imagining' a thing that you have niver lived through. It is the power of imaginin' that makes a man stand out, an' it is rarer than you might think. It is similar to the power of music" (p. 262). In what important ways is the novel about the power of sharing and imaginative empathy? How is sharing similar to music? Does Kemp acquire this power by the novel's end?

7. Why are the former slaves and the mutinous crew of the laplander able to live more or less as equals after their shipwreck in Florida?

8. In what ways does Kemp change over the course of the novel? How does his character grow more complex as more of his motivations and his family history is revealed? What do the surprising decisions does he makes, regarding Sullivan and Michael Bordon, say about him?

9. How are the wealthy-Lord Spenton and Erasmus Kemp particularly-depicted in the novel? How do they regard those beneath them in the social order? How do they view each other?

10. Both Jane and her brother Frederick Ashton want to effect real change in the world, to abolish slavery and improve the lives of the oppressed. How do they differ in terms of their motives and strategies?

11. In a series of cynical observations about how he manipulated the jury through their fear of mob rule, the lawyer Pike thinks of Kemp: "Propriety and property, those were his guiding lights" (p. 204). How are property and propriety related? What does Lord Spenton do with the common lands once they become his property? In what different ways do Kemp and Bordon view the property of the Dene? What are the legal and moral ramifications of regarding slaves as merely another form of property?

12. What arguments do Ashton's lawyers use to abolish the legal grounds for slavery? Why are they ultimately successful?

13. When Jane tells Kemp that she hopes Michael Bordon will keep the land Lord Spenton has given him and cultivate it as his father would have done, Kemp responds with a "smile of indulgence for sentiments that only ignorance of the world could account for"-a smile which Jane had seen on other men's faces when she had expressed her enthusiasm for what were considered eccentric causes (p. 293). What does this subtle exchange reveal about how women were regarded in 18th century England?

14. Even though she is powerfully attracted to Kemp, Jane hesitates and considers his marriage proposal very carefully. What are her concerns? What ultimately sways her?

15. The Quality of Mercy is very much about a specific time and place, England in 1767. What is most surprising about the portrait Unsworth paints of this particular historical moment? In what ways does the novel hold a mirror up to our own times?
 

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