This is the first novel I have read by Ms. Webb but when she started with an epigraph page with quotes from William Wordsworth, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudolph Steiner, I knew I was in for a well-wrought story. She certainly knows her literary stuff.
The novel straddles the span of a century — 1911 & 2011. A young journalist is asked to find information about a WWI soldier whose body has just been found. With just a couple of letters found with the soldier, she begins her search. In the alternate world, Cat Morley is just starting her new job as a maid at Cold Ash Rectory. The Reverend Albert Canning and his wife Hester hire the unfortunate girl as a sort of mission or kindness. Their relationship is awkward, at best, and made even more strained when a Mr. Robin Durrant enters the picture. A theosophist of great repute, the Reverend seeks to impress him with his own stories of fairies and elementals. The two feed off one another’s arrogance and delusion.
The book is written in present tense, a style I usually don’t find readable. However, Webb manages it well. Descriptions are still rich and not the usual clipped, terse style of present tense writing. Additionally, because it is contemporaneous, we the reader do not know that the narrator will “be alright”. It adds dramatic tension and brings the reader closer to the action.
It is nowhere near lunch time when a smart knock at the door jolts Cat from her reverie. She has been distracted all morning, her gaze wandering far and away through the hall window that she’s supposed to be polishing with ball of old newspaper. Thoughts of George Hobson tease her mind away from work. She saw him again last night, drank enough beer with him to make her head spin and her insides glow. Now her head is spinning still, and her stomach feels weak, and a slow throb of pain has taken to beating behind her eyes. Fatigue makes hr limbs heavy and her thoughts slow. Even this early in the day the air is warm, and a mist of sweat salts her top lip. When the door knocker forces her to move she turns, catching sight of herself in a heavy-framed mirror on the wall. ~Pg. 113
Cat is a complicated heroine. She is both mature for her age and forced to deal with things far too young. She is a free spirit trapped in a less than forgiving world. She is likable but far from perfect. Still, the reader is happy to root for her as she attempts to navigate the complicated household.
Webb also gives due to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and her madwoman in the attic. Jane’s terror when she is locked in the Red Room at Mrs Reed’s is as palpable. One of Cat’s worst fears is realized when she is locked in her room.
She hurls herself at the door, scrabbling at the wood, heedless of the splinters that drive themselves beneath her fingernails. She points her fists against it, feels the shock of each blow rattle her bones. But the door does not yield.
Hester, on the floor below, lies sleepless and alone in her bed. … Hester shuts her eyes and puts the pillow over her head, but she can’t block out the girl’s distress completely. She has no choice but to hear it, and finds in it, as the night progresses, an echo of feelings deep inside her own heart. ~ Pg. 326
The reader can’t help but recall Jane’s own sleepless nights as Bertha Rochester haunted Thornfield.
One final, though rather picky, note. The cover of this book does not match the book itself. I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but one does. This cover looks like a YA romance, rather than an Edwardian-set mystery. I just found it confusing.
All in all, The Unseen is a well-written, enjoyable book. It would be a perfect summer read, especially on a thunderstorming afternoon.
Many thanks to William Morrow for the review copy.
Imprint: William Morrow Paperbacks
On Sale: 5/22/2012
Format: Trade PB
Trimsize: 5 5/16 x 8
Pages: 464; $14.99; Ages: 18 and Up