Unsworth revisits familiar territory in this novel, the characters familiar from Sacred Hunger and the fate of the slave vessel Liverpool Merchant—the jettisoning of eighty-five African slaves initiating a mutiny on board. The ship wrecked off the coast of Florida in the New World. The crew and survivors establish a functioning democratic community, living in seclusion until the ship owner’s son, Erasmus Kemp, pursues the former crewmembers, arrests them, and delivers them to court in London to pay for their crimes. His case has critical implications for slave merchants, the outcome carefully monitored by the upper class, wealthy merchants and abolitionists alike.
The stage is set for the trial. The crew is incarcerated, all but one: Sullivan the Irish fiddler, who has managed to escape. He makes his way north to report the details of the death of another of the crew, Billy Blair, to a family who has been told nothing of the man’s fate. Happy to be freed of the shackles of the past, Sullivan desires nothing more than a safe passage north. Ironically, Kemp is pursuing a new business venture in the north, a mining concern that will bring him face to face with Sullivan and their shared history.
Unsworth’s drama plays out in London and in the north, where Billy’s family forfeits much to make a meager living in the mines. Billy’s brother-in-law, James Bordon, harbors a dream of one day owning a small piece of land to earn his keep above ground, freed from below the earth from dawn till dusk. While preparing for the impending trial, Kemp meets a worthy adversary, abolitionist Frederick Ashton. The devout capitalist unexpectedly falls in love with Ashton’s socially-conscious sister, Jane, a young woman of means and property who inspires him to become a better man. While Jane imagines herself as Kemp’s guide to a more fulfilling life, one possibly begun with the purchase of a coal mine in the north (“He wants to create more wealth so that everyone may benefit.”), her brother acts on behalf of his own interests, deeming the collateral damage along the way the price of progress.
As is usual in Unsworth’s work, class distinctions are at the heart of society’s inherent conflicts. Ashton and Kemp are players in a game where they hold all the power, the miners in Durham and imprisoned crew of the Liverpool Merchant at the mercy of their betters. Moral outrage is a luxury in a country rife with schemes for financial expansion and the serious business of making money, the rule of law protecting property and the greater good. In intricate layers, the author builds an edifice to progress as men define the laws of government and commerce, where mercy falls into the hands of the few and is subject to interpretation far removed from the reality of the common man.
“The natural order of things” is guided by those who know best by virtue of education and position, secure in their moral obligation, often the strangest bedfellows in common cause. Ironic, then, that a critical piece of precious land buys a family’s freedom, sweet revenge for a shipmate’s betrayal glittering like the brass button that serves as a talisman for an Irish fiddler. To be sure, Unsworth has not finished with Erasmus Kemp or the family of Billy’s brother-in-law, James Borden.