A few months ago I was delighted to receive an advance copy of Barry Unsworth's latest novel, The Quality of Mercy (Nan A. Talese), especially because it was said to be a sequel to his best-known book, the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger. Thinking that it would very worthwhile to revisit Sacred Hunger I wound up rereading it in its entirety and then describing my reaction.
Oddly enough, however, I didn't read The Quality of Mercy at the time, I can't recall why, and now it has been published so my would-be advance review is a month or so after the fact.
There are therefore few survivors to populate the new book. One who did survive is the Irish fiddler, Sullivan, who managed to escape from the jail in which he was imprisoned once back in England; he uses his freedom to fulfill a vow made to one of his mates who was killed in Florida, that he would find the mate's family and tell them what had happened. Another is Kemp himself, a tortured soul who saw slavery as nothing more than business and slaves as nothing more than property. He happens to meet the beautiful sister of Frederick Ashton, the great abolitionist and of course his direct adversary in the court cases then-pending. Either his mania for business or his infatuation with the sister leads him to seek new investments at home, specifically a coal mine in the very area in which the family of Sullivan's mate lives. There he actually encounters Sullivan, and learns something of the quality of mercy.
The moral fiber of Unsworth's writing is admirable and his ability to breathe life into characters, even those whom he must detest, is breathtakingly good. This is a worthy successor to Sacred Hunger, and I strongly recommend that you read them both.
— Jeremy Nussbaum