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.
These are the opening words of Barry Unsworth’s new novel, The Quality of Mercy. I love them for their sheer audacity. How is Sullivan ‘accidentally’ free? We certainly are not told in the first chapter, which is as far as I have got. I suspect we may not be told elsewhere: Unsworth has never betrayed much of a liking for the flashback. Besides, do we need to know? Is it not enough that Sullivan is out on the streets of London on a bitterly cold March day in 1767, wearing only the flimsiest of clothes and ready for whatever happenstance may bring?
The Quality of Mercy is a direct sequel to Sacred Hunger, which won the Booker Prize in 1992 (a prize he had to share with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient; I am not alone in thinking this a travesty), which in some obscure way probably makes the new novel ‘long awaited’. Of course, Sacred Hunger didn’t need a sequel, I don’t think Unsworth planned one at the time, and I suspect he has only written a sequel now because he has happened to work out a plot that takes the story, and more particularly the characters, onwards. So no-one has actually been awaiting this sequel, but it is welcome nevertheless, because any new novel by Unsworth is welcome.
I have a suspicion that Unsworth is the most garlanded unknown in English Literature. As well as winning the Booker Prize (a victory that was instantly overshadowed by the far more glitzy, media-friendly Ondaatje), he has been shortlisted also for Pascali’s Island and Morality Play, and yet he is unlikely to feature on anyone’s list of top contemporary writers. When there was a minor feeding frenzy in the literary journals about the historical novel a little while back, Unsworth’s name was never mentioned. And yet I feel he is probably the finest historical novelist we have (and that includes Hilary Mantel). He just seems to have that quiet brilliance that does the job superbly without ever attracting attention to itself.
I first discovered Unsworth when I happened upon a copy of Stone Virgin in the mid-80s, a story about art and Venice that did not bother with the safe romanticism that such a combination might normally attract. I quickly picked up a copy of his earlier novel, Pascali’s Island set on a Turkish island around the beginning of the century (and far better than the film version). From this I learned two things, first that his interest in the past was restless and he was liable to shift to widely different eras from novel to novel; and second, that despite this restlessness there was no superficiality about his view of the past, he was always very good at evoking what it felt like to live at the period he chose. There was a third thing: that he is the sort of historical novelist who does not employ famous real figures as characters (The Songs of Kings is a rare and perhaps necessary exception), but rather deals with ordinary people in their intense and daily experience of the past, but this is brewing up to be another post I’ve got planned for Big Other.
Since then I’ve been quick to catch Unsworth’s work as soon as it appears. Sacred Hunger is, of course, the big one, a fat book about the slave trade in the 18th century, but it is not, I think, the best of his novels. His masterpiece, so far as I am concerned, is The Ruby in Her Navel, a stunning novel of medieval Sicily just at the point when the cautious experiment of Christians and Moslems living together was starting to break down. But I was also struck by Losing Nelson, a rare contemporary novel about a collector of Nelson memorabilia, The Songs of Kings about the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, Morality Play about medieval players of Mystery Plays, and Land of Marvels about archaeology and espionage in the Middle East on the eve of the First World War.
And now we have a return to the 18th century, but the focus has shifted from the slave ships to the anti-slavery campaigners in England and the state of the working poor, which sounds meaty and interesting.