"The Unseeing" by Anna Mazzola
Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.
After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she's hiding something, but needs to discover just why she's maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?
This is a brilliant book. I can not believe it is Mazzola's first novel; it is so eloquent, engaging, evocative and quite frankly, just down right excellent!
I read about this book on Twitter and knew it was THE book I had to read in 2017 so I was absolutely delighted to receive an advance copy from Millie Seaward at Tinder Press - the best belated Christmas present ever!
So what makes this book so brilliant?
How long have you got?!
It's set in 1837 and I don't think I have read a book recently that has been able to place me so firmly in its historical setting. The sights, smells, sounds and surroundings are evoked with such conviction and authenticity that you are utterly transported back in time. Mazzola's careful attention to detail means that the reader is completely immersed in the 1830s and able to experience the reality of living in London at this time. Whatever stenches Mazzola does bring to our attention, there is not a whiff of academia or showing off - she does not draw unnecessary attention to the extensive research that must have gone it to this book. She has a fascinating story to tell and is a gifted story teller. The setting, the social context and the historical references creep like shadows onto the page, furnishing your mind with all it needs to feel as if you are walking the streets alongside Edmund and Sarah rather than reminding you this is based on a real case in history and it is 1837. Mazzola manages to create a wonderful reimagining of this time and place with immense success.
"Back out on Newgate Street, Edmund was hit by the stink of horses hit and cesspits, the shouts of hawkers, the clatter of hoofs, the crack of a coachman's whip."
It's a gritty novel. London in the 1830s is not a pleasant place and Newgate Prison is a terrible institution. Conditions are horrific and there is a dark, oppressive atmosphere running through the novel which helps to build tension, suspense and as well as a sense of despair. Although Mazzola's description of life inside the prison is not for the fainthearted, it is completely compelling. It reminded me of several authors like Dickens and Wilkie Collins.
"The dark cells: that place of utter blackness beneath Newgate where those who refused to keep silent were shackled to the wall, gagged and then left to their own private hell."
And there is real resonance in some of the phrases:
"After a few weeks of Newgate's regis, she no longer looked much like a child bearing woman. She was beginning to resemble the skeleton she would become."
So alongside the fantastic atmosphere, this novel is also riddled with intrigue. Firstly, it is based on a real murder case so this in itself creates a sense of tension. Secondly there is the mystery of what actually happened to Hannah Brown and how she died. There is the intrigue about Sarah's lover James, who was also engaged to Hannah, his relationship with the two women and his role in Hannah's death. Then finally, the intrigue surrounding Sarah and her reluctance to speak up about the events or go to any trouble to defend herself.
Sarah is a highly complicated protagonist. The reader is continually guessing whether she is guilty or not guilty, an actress or a vulnerable woman, a victim or a manipulative liar. It's impossible to know and I thought she was a really compelling and fascinating character. There are times when she seems to be playing Edmund - "she was not at all sure that she had the right cards, nor whether it was the right time to show them" - and then times when she appears to have been completely manipulated by a controlling, obsessed lover:
"James had a way with words: he always knew what to say to buoy people up and make them trust him. But he also knew what would cut the deepest. He began with little slices, barely perceptible and then, when, she was broken down, move on to the bigger incisions."
There is a humanity about Sarah which is reflected in her relationship with her sister, then one of the inmates and most significantly with her young son, George. But equally this is a woman who also appears to have stood by and watch her lover cut the throat of his fiancé. I really enjoyed the passage when Sarah considers what might happen to her body after her hanging has taken place. It reminds the reader not only of medial education at the time, but also medical understanding of the mind and of the criminal at this point in history:
"Or would she be anatomised..... this Gentlemen is what an evil woman's heart looks like: observe how strangely it is formed........A sure sign of a diseased and dangerous mind."
I also enjoyed the character of Edmund Fleetwood, who has the complicated job of investigating Sarah's sentence despite an overwhelming belief that she had a fair trial with representation. "She chose to say virtually nothing at all," states the Home Secretary. She is appealing for mercy and yet refuses to speak up. She's adamant that she is innocent but won't really help Edmund put together a convincing case. But Edmund is a conscientious man who sees something in Sarah, he decides to do all he can to discover the truth and save Sarah's life even when at the detriment of his own. I liked the suspense and tension that followed Edmund around as he sought answers to his difficult questions and the implication that he was becoming haunted by this case. It emphasised a sense of something foreboding lurking within the final chapters.
"Thinking he had heard the light tread of footsteps close behind him, Edmund turned back, but only saw rags hanging on washing lines overhead, moving in the breeze like phantoms."
I love the fact that Mazzola has quoted King Lear after one of the chapter headings. The title of the novel is "The Unseeing" and the notion of sight, perception, reality, shadows, dreams and sight - both literal and metaphorical, are used effectively within the novel adding depth, fear and anticipation to the characters and the plot. It did remind me of King Lear a few times so the quote seemed very appropriate -as were all the quotes chosen to head each chapter. There were some fascinating extracts from court cases and academic quotes about women and prison which add further food for thought to the themes explored by Mazzola.
As I said before, the historical research that went into this book must have been immense but it is not intrusive. This book is for fans of historical fiction but also for fans of crime writing. It is for fans of novels that are as much character driven as plot driven and for fans of a story that weaves an intricate web of secrets and lies. Ultimately this is a book for fans of exquisite, engrossing and absorbing writing and who like a story that is both exciting and moving.
"The Unseeing" has a complex plot which is impressively handled; it explores many interesting themes and provides real insight into society at a particular moment in time. It has appealing characters who are created with the skill of an accomplished writer. It's impossible to accept this books comes from a debut novelist. It really reminded me of one of my all time favourite writers Sarah Waters and if you enjoyed this book you should definitely read her novels!
I loved it. I highly recommend it. I can't do it justice in this review and all I can say is read it. My first book hangover of 2017!
"The Unseeing" by Anna Mazzola is published by Tinder Press on 26th January 2017.
For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)