The Quality of Mercy (Unsworth)

I wish I could remember why I first picked up one of Unsworth’s books, but I am so glad I did. It is safe to say that Morality Play was one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life. (Willem Defoe’s film adaptation, The Reckoning, does it justice.) From there, I went on a kind of Unsworth run – The Rage of the Vulture, Stone Virgin, Sacred Hunger, and Losing Nelson. I was disappointed only by the last one, and I moved on to other authors.

When I read the review of The Quality of Mercy, I was intrigued, and then when I read the news that Unsworth had died, I knew I had to find my way back to his work. I tried to go slowly through the novel, but I was too engaged, too lost in the world and people that Unsworth created.

I’ve never been a big fan of genres, so it was with some surprise that I realized that Unsworth is really the only author of historical fiction whose work I’ve liked consistently.

The arrangement of the plot is familiar. Two characters, seemingly at odds with each other, are headed (for different reasons) to the same place. But by the time they both get there, Unsworth has offered us such a delicate and wide-ranging plot that when their confrontation does not go as expected, it seems just right. There are no truly evil characters here, just conflicting motives and the open question as to whether motives even matter.

This is a book to be cherished. Two lines in particular resonated with me because I think they spoke to the whole novel —

“There is stories everywhere, but we often get only the middle parts” (5).

Early on, that’s a kind of reminder from Unsworth. We get some information about the past, but we are firmly in the middle and therefore should be hesitant to judge.

Then, near the end, a line is echoed – “It is the power of imagining that makes a man stand out.” This is true for all of the characters (even Jane), and it is true for the author as well.

A fine farewell, Mr. Unsworth.

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