Review: 'The Quality of Mercy' by Barry Unsworth

Quality of Mercy
So, what to say about The Quality of Mercy? I was approached and asked whether I’d like a review copy of this book, and I said yes on the strength of its Booker Prize win and multiple nominations. What did I think upon reading it? Well, I’ve never felt more female or more, well, 26.

Nothing about this book was aimed towards me. All of the characters were male, save one - a beautiful woman called Jane Ashton, who was only ever mentioned in relation to her brother and the man who fancied her – and the male characters were mostly of a type almost indistinguishable from one another: 30s-50s, working for good as they perceive it and driven by religion, a memory or faith. There was period detail, yes, but taking it down to basics, the men were there to do stuff and the women were there as bedfellows, as with the Florida castaways, or to marvel at so-and-so’s strong jaw line or commanding air.

The story itself is a sequel, set in 1767, which carries on from Unsworth’s Booker Prize winner ‘Sacred Hunger’, and is about the trial of the crew of a ship that threw slaves overboard in the middle of the Atlantic and a number of abolitionists, some miners and a fugitive Irish fiddler. Not that you’d really know it: any tension or interest that could be attributed to this vibrant historical period was lost in bureaucracy, depositions, lengthy discussions of law and mining, topped off by the slightly silly ramblings of Sullivan, the Irish fiddler travelling to Durham to tell a friend’s family how he died. I found no tension, no urgency and I struggled to really separate the interwoven storylines out, seeing as they were all inhabited by doppelgangers of other characters, who said similar lines and banged the table in a similarly manly way. The pacing was punishing. At any point, I could have put the book down and never picked it up again.

The language was also a little off. It was showboaty and over-explanatory, but oddly, not particularly clear. It was definitely ‘writerly’ writing, but blustery and overwrought. The omniscient narrator felt very old-fashioned, and it didn’t pass my notice that all the male characters were given an internal monologue throughout, whereas Jane Ashton had to wait until chapter 38 (of 39) and then it went as follows:

‘In the silence of her apartment, seated at the small writing desk, Jane Ashton strove to compose the promised letter, the main labour of which lay in the effort to understand herself.

There were things about Erasmus Kemp that she could not admire. The way he set the achievement of his aims on the same, unqualified, identical plane of success, whatever their nature, the way he neglected to consider the cost to others. However, she felt that she understood these things better now, after their last talk together. Something of the compassion she had felt for him on that occasion returned to her mind. He was endlessly seeking to fulfil the vow he had made to his father, as if in the end his successes would leave no room for any sense of inadequacy or guilt. Like trying to fill a pit with gold, not knowing that the pit was bottomless… Or was she simply trying to find excuses for this lack of care he showed, this overriding devotion to his own purposes? Finding excuses for him was easy, he was attractive to her in a way that no man had ever been; she was stirred by the thought of lovemaking between them, his imagined touch upon her. His desire was so strong, so evident in his looks and behaviour. Sometimes she found it hard to meet his eyes, fierce with need in that dark-complexioned face. He was relentless…’

So, in summary, when she is allowed thoughts they are just about men. Standard.

Also, seeing as we’re quoting stuff, a lot of the book was ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’. Any writing student will know what a capital sin that is:

‘It was a similar sense of taint, a feeling of being contaminated, that troubled him now. He had been too eager with his explanations to this Dutch interloper, he had lowered himself. As if it mattered a straw whether the fellow appreciated his motives or not…

We generally like to regard ourselves in a good light, but the extent to which this matters varies from person to person. For Erasmus Kemp it mattered very much, and for this reason he had never been much given to any closeness of self-questioning. The answers to such questions will be ambiguous at best, motives will usually reveal themselves to be impure.’

Well, why don’t you just tell us all about your construction of the character, all-knowing narrator? Why not show us the scaffolding that keeps this made-up character upright and moving? I mean, it’s not just me, is it?

There’s precisely two reasons why I’m going for this book in such a way (other than me hating it, of course):

1)      All the reviews I’ve read of it so far have been glowing. The Sunday Times Magazine reviewer said that ‘Readers new to Unsworth need not hesitate with starting here. The Quality of Mercy stands alone as yet another example (this is his 17th novel) of the author’s extraordinary ability to turn dry history into dramatic narrative’. In The Daily Mail, it is ‘immediately involving and immensely readable’. Only The Independent seems a little unsure.

This then makes me wonder, what is the average age and gender of a newspaper book critic? I can only see the names John Harding and Christopher Potter (Daily Mail and Sunday Times, respectively), so we know they’re male and I’d be willing to put money on the fact that they’re a generation above mine. I can’t imagine anyone either female, or younger than this, who’d not have a few more questions like the ones above, so it seemed the natural thing to make a point of doing it here.

2)     As a girl, it offends me to read about woman portrayed like this. I know it’s a historical novel, so of course the female characters must be shown to be oppressed, limited and only known in relation to their men, but that’s not the way that their stories have to be told. A perfect female façade combined with a questioning and inquisitive inner voice is a powerful combination. A perfect façade with a similarly projected inner life is misogynistic and back-dated.

            I guess my question is, aren't we past this?

Title: The Quality of Mercy
Author: Barry Unsworth
Genre: Historical Fiction 
Publisher: Hutchinson
Publication date: 1st September 2011
Format: Hardback, 294 pages, Advanced Reader Copy


  1. I haven't read this book (and probably won't) but I love this review for pointing out these omissions with the female character. I feel like this sort of thing can sometimes (often?) be overlooked. Even if everything else in the novel were working, I'd argue this is still worth mentioning and critiquing. I think a big part of the problem is that she's the sole female character. If there had been several female characters, with differing personalities and motivations, it might not have been so bad to have one woman who was more adherent to the social norms and expectations of the time.

    But to have her as the sole representation of women in a book, even a historical fiction, is frustrating and makes you wonder if the author was even interested in making her a full person.

  2. Yeah, I'm not sure he was. There was talk about Erasmus Kemp (the character she ends up marrying) looking forward to explaining his business plans to her as she cared so much about the welfare of workers and could comprehend what he was talking about (because, you know, business is so hard for women), but it just seemed like that was the token effort to avoid such criticism. Never did she 'think' about anything quite so interesting or gritty, although she was allowed a 'feminine' concern for others. It made me really mad.

    I looked into the author a bit and turns out he's an 82 year old British ex-pat living in Italy...so, really, should we be surprised? But saying that, where is his editor? I bet they're not that old and really shouldn't be able to claim ignorance to such issues. Hmm.


Thanks for commenting! Best bit of blogging, by far.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...